A high-cost road to unsure haven

Refugees: Part of a gathering wave, an Afghan sells all he has to pay smugglers to take his family to Pakistan.

War On Terrorism : The World

October 16, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - You will rarely find Imran Khan near a busy road or wandering into the city. He is afraid authorities will spot him. They deported him once, not long after he and his family were smuggled in from neighboring Afghanistan. He managed to return.

"I stay hidden. If they come, they will take me," he said. "I don't have any choice. I'll come back."

Khan's story captures the hardships faced by the increasing number of Afghan refugees trying to enter Pakistan. He was once a farmer of wheat, corn and watermelons, but four years of drought made it hard to feed his family. When rumors came of an impending attack by the United States, he decided to leave.

"We were afraid," Khan said. "There was nothing to eat and nothing to drink."

With Afghanistan's borders officially closed, his family became one of thousands fleeing the American bombing campaign by paying to be smuggled into Pakistan, United Nations officials say.

The going rate for a family of six is $100 - a fortune to most Afghans, some of whom sell all their possessions for a chance to cross the border, only to face the risk of deportation once they arrive.

"Most families simply cannot afford that," said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Quetta.

And the cost is rising daily, Colville said. The profits, according to UNHCR, are lining the pockets of the Taliban, who are directly involved in the smuggling.

Many of the families travel long distances to escape years of drought and war, only to spend their last pocketful of rupees to try to get across. Some are denied access. And if the refugees are not Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, they face racial discrimination as well.

"The minorities are almost all forced to put themselves in the hands of the smugglers and are apparently being charged much more for everything. Many are extremely poor," Colville said.

But the system persists because people will pay. About a thousand people per day trickle into Pakistan's Baluchistan province, which shares an 800-mile border with Afghanistan. More than 30,000 refugees have arrived in the province since Pakistan sealed its borders soon after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Colville says about 30,000 more have entered Pakistan's North West Frontier province, which shares a 700-mile border with Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials have been reluctant to open the border out of fear the country would be inundated with refugees. During two decades of war in Afghanistan, Pakistan has served as a haven for millions of Afghans, and more than 2 million remain in the country.

UNHCR has pressed Pakistan without success to open the border. Most frustrating, U.N. and aid officials say, is the thought that they are unable to help the people in Afghanistan until they leave.

"It's a country at war. It's a country with massive crises, layer after layer of crises - drought, conflict and now bombardment of the cities, and possibly after that a complete breakdown of law and order," Colville said. "Basically, the Afghans are trapped inside Afghanistan. They can't get out."

But U.N. and aid agencies continue to prepare for the day when the borders might open, flooding Pakistan with up to a million refugees. In Quetta, 80 miles from the border, UNHCR has been surveying potential camp sites and stockpiling tents, water cans and blankets.

The irony is that Afghan refugees who have crossed the border in recent weeks are unable to benefit from these supplies because they entered the country illegally. Most new arrivals keep a low profile, afraid to ask for help so as to avoid notice by the police, who regularly deport them.

In Khan's case, he and his extended family - 25 in all - left Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan for Quetta, where they had friends who could help them.

Smugglers charged about $20 for each adult and $10 per child for the trip by van across the border. To pay for their escape, Khan sold practically everything he owned.

"I just sold my things, my cloth, my crockery, my coats. I borrowed from my relatives, too," he said.

Then the smugglers demanded more to bribe officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the end, he paid 35,000 rupees, about $560, to move his family and relatives - for him, an enormous sum. He believes he had to pay more because he is Turkman and not Pashtun.

"Whatever they asked, I gave them - to come across and save my life," he said.

He and his relatives live in a tiny house against the jagged mountains on the northern side of Quetta. It is little more than four low stone-and-mud walls with a piece of thatch on one corner for a roof. Inside is an empty birdcage that Khan found by the side of the road. He works nearby at a stone-crushing factory, where he earns about 60 cents a day.

"When I thought about leaving my country, my heart was in pain and burning," he said.

"Still, what could I do? I came for my survival. I'm not here for enjoyment. I'm a refugee."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.