Inside Afghanistan's refugee camps

Near the Iranian border, thousands of Afghans seek refuge from the U.S. bombing.

Published November 29, 2001 7:26PM (EST)

In between the rows of refugee tents here set up by the Iranian Red Crescent, just on the other side of the Iranian border, a little boy quietly creeps up and whispers an almost inaudible sentence.

"My father and mother became martyrs," he says without any preamble.

The word martyr has become so commonplace in the lexicon of this region, it can apply to having a road accident while on government duty.

"When?" I ask.

"A month ago."



We speak the same language, Farsi, but to my Iranian ears, his Afghan dialect, known as Dari, sounds as if it was being uttered 1,000 years ago. So I have to keep questions short and to the point, using simple sentences and basic vocabulary.

"How old are you?"


"How were your parents martyred?"

"Bombaran," he utters, the single word in Farsi that literally means rain of bombs. In this case, he is referring to the bombs that fell from American and British jets over Kandahar. He has no expression on his face, which remains like a mask. The boy's name is Saleh Mohammad. He recounts his family's death in the allied bombing with complete emotional detachment -- no tears, no wailing, no complaining.

When describing even the bloodiest scenes, Afghan children speak as if they are 100 years old. They have witnessed images that Western children are not even allowed to see in movies, for fear of nightmares. Dismemberment, death, starvation, torture have been part of their daily lives throughout more than 20 years of war, drought and now renewed bombing.

Saleh was at his uncle's house the night the bombs fell on his parents' home. He saw his father and brother dead when he got back in the morning, and he ran away. "There was blood and broken walls everywhere," he says.

Saleh left Kandahar with his uncle's family and came to this camp on the Iranian border. He is in a region controlled by General Barahooii, a Baluchi Afghan who has held on to a 200-square-kilometer piece of Afghanistan throughout the Taliban reign.

"On the first night of the bombardment, the city square was destroyed," he says.

He is wearing the traditional long cotton shirt over trousers worn by most Afghan men here. At night the desert temperature drops below freezing. He has no shoes.

Saleh, an ethnic Pashtun and Sunni Muslim, has been in the camp for 10 days. It took him 20 days by car to get here from Kandahar. His father was a day laborer. He says he wants to be a teacher, but he himself is illiterate.

"Will you go back?" I ask him.

"If it becomes safe I'll go back."

"Will you not be scared, to go back where your parents died?"

"Scared? Why? The Americans have killed my parents. If I can, I will kill the Americans."

Almost 10,000 Afghan refugees have arrived at the Iranian border in the past month but have not been permitted to cross into Iran. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, Iran sealed its border with Afghanistan, but Iranian authorities have set up two refugee camps inside Afghanistan itself. Makaki camp is situated only 1.5 kilometers from Iran, in what was originally Taliban territory. A second camp has been organized at Mile 46, farther north in an area of Afghanistan controlled by a local warlord and erstwhile governor of Zaranj in Nimrooz province, General Abdolkarim Barahooii.

While the closing of the border was welcomed by the Bush administration, the Iranians' refusal to open their borders to fleeing Afghans has put the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a quandary.

The UNHCR has remained absent from both camps, stranded by both security concerns and a matter of semantics. Its mandate for helping refugees does not cover these Afghans, who are classified as internally displaced people (IDP): homeless within their own borders. The UNHCR also fears for the safety of both its staff and the Afghans in camps that are clearly vulnerable to the ever-changing situation in Afghanistan.

Reflecting the state of the country as a whole, the Taliban-controlled camp at Makaki fell under the control of Barahooii's troops, who are sympathetic to the Northern Alliance. They arrived on the evening of November 12. The Taliban minders disappeared, and some reportedly changed sides.

Abdolkarim Bashardoost, a local Afghan with a long beard and his plain white turban tilted over his left ear -- a sign of the Taliban, who almost never wear the decorative silk turbans worn by other Afghans -- was the security chief of Makaki camp in charge of 50 armed Taliban. A soft-spoken man, he was still defiant about reports of the demise of the Taliban in other parts of Afghanistan when we spoke during the day on November 12. Neither of us were to know that he would lose control of his small territory in only a few hours. "Every government after the end of this war will be made by America. We will never accept them. We will fight to the end," warned Bashardoost.

The next day Bashardoost left the camp unannounced after the arrival of Barahooii's men.

Inside the camps, uncertainty reigns. The refugees who remain here are reluctant to return home, even as news of the Taliban's continuous retreats reaches them on little transistor radios tuned to foreign radio stations. Water, electricity and basic foodstuffs are brought in from Iran and the Iranian Red Crescent provides medical care, assisted by Doctors Without Borders and a handful of other small international aid agencies. But the situation remains dire for the Afghans who are not prepared for the winter, which has arrived early this year.

Women and children, poorly dressed and often weak from long journeys, constitute the bulk of the population. Many left their homes because of the bombing and have no means by which to return. Moreover, they do not trust promises of a new, broad-based Afghan government to be any different from the many changes of power they have witnessed in their country in the past.

"In the last 20 years, I have sold all of my belongings at least three times," says Mohammad Naiim, a 46-year-old refugee from Kandahar who spent two weeks traveling with his pregnant wife and six children to reach Makaki. "My family and I no longer have the strength to be chased away again if it doesn't work out this time." Soon after his family arrived in the camp, Naiim's wife gave birth to a baby girl with the help of Doctors Without Borders physicians.

UNHCR also believes that the worst may not be over yet. It maintains that Iranians should allow the Afghan population at its borders inside and allow them to set up camp at least 50 kilometers inside the Iranian border. "In spite of the change of forces inside Afghanistan, the situation is still fluid," said Millicent Mutuli, UNHCR's public information officer based in Tehran. "These are people fleeing from the Nimrooz province; they should be allowed asylum in Iran. They will be safer in Iran."

Danial Mollaii, the security chief of Sistan-Baluchistan, the Iranian province that borders the camps, disagrees. He relies on statistics to make his point. There are 400,000 Afghan refugees already living in his province. Thirty percent of the population of the province's capital, Zahedan, are made up of long-term Afghan refugees exerting pressure socially and economically on a region officially declared deprived by the Iranian government.

But the Iranian government, which has long supported the Northern Alliance, is clearly concerned about the political allegiances of these refugees. "There are hidden sympathies in the province for the Taliban because of the common religious roots some people here have with them," Mollaii says.

Seventy percent of people in the province are Sunnis, unlike the rest of Iran, which is a predominantly Shia country. The Baluchi tribe after which half the province is named are scattered across Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, traveling freely across borders.

Only a month ago, an anti-U.S.-bombing demonstration led to an attack on the Pakistani consulate in Zahedan that left one person dead.

Anti-U.S. and Pakistani sentiment runs high among the population. "Hatred against the U.S. and Britain has increased since the bombings," says Molana Abdolhamid, the spiritual leader of Sunnis, in his mosque in Zahedan. "If the international community topples the Taliban and excludes them from future government, the Taliban will not allow a new government to exist. Maybe the Taliban's extremism is a weakness. But it is better to reform them than to kill them."

Prospects for a quick solution for the 2.3 million Afghan refugees scattered in the region remain bleak as factions gathered under the umbrella of the Northern Alliance begin to voice their individual vision of a future Afghanistan.

"If the world forgets Afghanistan, tomorrow's Afghanistan will be no different to yesterday's Afghanistan," says Barahooii.

But even the general, whose latest advances would not have been possible without the help of U.S. bombers, warns against any direct role for the United States in Afghanistan's future: "If the U.S. aims for a base in Afghanistan, they will face the same fate as the Soviet Union." While many of the refugees oppose the Taliban, they are angry at the U.S-led bombing campaign that has cost them their homes and their loved ones.

"People in big tall buildings with bathrooms are humans, but my children aren't," says Mohammad, a 45-year-old father of six. He and his wife, Bibigol, 38, and their children ranging in age from 2 to 10, left their native Ghowr, east of Heart, to come to Makaki. For ten days they lived without a tent, bearing the freezing cold of the desert nights, because there were not enough tents for the new arrivals. They made their own shelter on the outskirts of the camp with a sheet of cloth and some sticks.

Life was good for them before the bombing, according to Bibigol, who makes traditional hand-woven rugs known as kilim. Mohammad made a living as a cook preparing chelo-kabab, a local dish of rice and barbecued meat. They sold all they had to pay for their way to the Iranian border.

Surrounded by three of their children, they sit outside their makeshift tent, their faces caked in the dust that blows up into the air with every little movement. Behind them a crowd gathers around tankers distributing drinking water.

"I've never seen bin Laden," says Mohammad. "Nobody here has ever seen bin Laden. [The United States] talks of human rights. Don't children here have human rights?"

By Haleh Anvari

Haleh Anvari is a writer living in Tehran, Iran

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