Reap the whirwind

The preachers of militant extremism find ready students and recruits among powerless and hopeless refugees.


It is an image that is so well-known as to approach cliche - refugees, belongings in bundles on their heads, children dressed in tatters clinging to their sides, fleeing the fighting or the famine or the chaos. The setting can be the mountains of Afghanistan, the bush of Africa or the paved roads of Kosovo.

For generations, people seeking to escape warfare have been the inevitable byproduct of violent conflicts. The current one in Afghanistan is no exception. As the certainty of war became clear, Afghans headed to their country's borders, where, for the most part, they were stopped. When the bombing began, more fled.

Those who pay attention to such matters know that the current flow of refugees is a continuation of the stream of people who left Afghanistan during the past three years of drought and increasingly harsh Taliban rule.

But what many might not realize is that the Afghan refugee problem goes back a quarter-century, and that the Taliban itself is a product of the long-standing refugee camps in Pakistan. The looming question is whether the current war will create another generation of refugees who will provide a fertile ground to grow the terrorists of the future.

Such long-term views are not meant to detract from the acute humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America - an aid organization active there - says that before the current crisis more than 3 million people depended on food aid for adequate nutrition; a half-million had no other source of food. With the bombing, that number may have more than doubled.

"In the northern central areas, the mountainous regions up near the Uzbek and Tajik borders, there are some districts where people are really in rather dire straits facing the serious possibility of starvation in the near future," Offenheiser says. "But it is very, very hard to get accurate data."

Beyond the immediate situation, though, many point to the long-term implications of a population once again destabilized by war, turned into roaming refugees, living in camps that throughout history have produced little but problems for all involved. Sept. 11 showed that such problems can have a global reach.

"Wherever there is a large refugee ... population, what tends to happen is the social, political and economic fabric of the place is weakened and sometimes even destroyed," says Martin Heisler, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park who is writing a book on refugees.

"If we are going to have more and more places that are not viable politically, socially and economically, it will create the kind of movements like the Taliban and the other extreme actors coming out of the refugee camps," Heisler says.

Says Monty Marshall, of the UM Center for International Development and Conflict Management: "A large number of refugees and a displaced population is a symptom of a much deeper problem. It takes a lot to drive people from their homes. It is a strong indication that there is something wrong with this picture."

The camps in Pakistan were home to those fleeing the puppet government in Afghanistan installed by the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. The camps swelled to more than 2 million after the Soviet invasion began in 1980.

The U.S.-backed opposition to the Soviets found eager recruits among the Islamic radicals in the camps, the mujahedeen who fought their holy war against the invaders. Later, when the Soviets left and chaos ensued among those who had fought them, the Taliban arose from the religious schools that operated in the camps.

At nearly 25 years old, the camps in Pakistan are young compared to those set up for Palestinians who fled the 1948 Israeli-Arab war. Generations have grown up in these camps that have produced many of the suicide bombers and other militant, radical opponents of Israeli rule.

In Africa, it was the second generation of displaced Rwandan Tutsis who led a successful invasion of that country from neighboring Uganda in 1994. Two years later - perhaps remembering how their own resolve grew in exile - Rwanda's Tutsi-led government cleared out camps in Zaire that were filled with 1 million Rwandan Hutus led by military rulers hoping to regain power in Rwanda.

Africa is now full of camps - from Sierra Leone to Sudan, Liberia to Angola - where a new, unhappy generation is growing to maturity.

The methods that the international community uses to deal with refugees were developed after World War II, when Europe was full of such displaced people. Most, at least in western Europe, were successfully reintegrated into their home countries.

The paradigm shift

"What happened since World War II is that whole paradigm has shifted," says Tahir Shad of Washington College. "Then, when the war ended, the displaced went back to their countries. Now they never go back because of the brutality of these civil wars. There is nothing to go back to."

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