Chagai Hills, southern Afghanistan — They come by truck, by camel, or on foot. Every day hundreds of destitute Afghan tribesmen make their way across this barren desert landscape to reach the safety of western Pakistan's ever-expanding refugee camps.
"They have bombed our villages and killed our families," explains one turbaned Baluchi farmer from the Lashkar Gah region some 100 miles to the north.
According to this villager, Soviet and Afghan Air Force planes had raked their homes with bombs and cannon fire. Several men, women, and children were killed.
Leading a string of camels loaded with canvas, tent stakes, and the salvaged remnants of his destroyed home, the farmer trekked with his wife, their four children, and the families of his two brothers for eight days. Their route lay over the barely visible rocky trails that follow dried-out river beds or meander across open arid wastelands.
The two brothers remained behind in the mountains to fight with the Afghan rebels.
In Pakistan, the farmer hopes to find food and shelter. His little group is part of more than 750,000 refugees who have crossed Afghanistan's mountainous eastern borders with Pakistan since the Communists first came to power in Kabul under the late President Nur Muhammad Taraki in April 1978.
Western Pakistan is facing a monumental task due to the refugee influx, which is reputedly the largest into any single country at this time, including Thailand and Somalia, according to on-the-scene estimates.
With a reported increase of repression in Afghanistan ranging from brutal murder of opponents to the bombing of human settlements suspected of rebel collaboration, international relief organizations fear the number of refugees may reach the 1 million mark, possibly within the next two months.
"Our information shows that in all probability fighting will increase once spring arrives," noted one European aid official. "We can then expect a massive surge in refugee numbers."
About four-fifths of the refugees now in Pakistan have settled in camps scattered along the hilly roads and villages of the Northwest Frontier Province. The remainder, most of them having fled from the plains of Kandahar and Helmand provinces of Afghanistan, have pitched their tents in the desert regions of Baluchistan.
Although tens of thousands of refugees have managed to find shelter in the homes of relatives, both Pushtun and Baluchi tribesmen consider the 1893 Durand line that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan only as a wall-chart boundary and traditionally have moved between the two countries without hindrance. Relief organizations face considerable difficulties in providing adequate shelter, particularly in the colder, mountainous areas.
"In some parts, such as Chitral, we have been able to house them in government buildings," one relief coordinator pointed out, "but the average refugee must live in a tent."
In the rocky, sparsely vegetated mountain regions, large numbers of Afghans are being forced to sleep exposed in often sub-zero temperatures. Although Afghan tribesmen are normally a hardy race, there has been a serious rise in illness, particularly among the children.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva issued a $55 million appeal in January to help care for the refugees. This would provide for the purchase of blankets, tents, food, and medical supplies for 500,000 refugees. But with the numbers increasing, UN officials are being forced to revise their aid programs. The United States contribution to the United Nations appeal totals more than $21 million, or nearly 40 percent.
The International Committee of the Red Cross and the League of Red Cross Societies jointly have launched a similar appeal for 14.5 million Swiss francs ( government, the Red Cross operation will supply emergency-relief items and medical care, but no food.
Red Cross officials, however, are deeply concerned about being able to raise enough funds to carry through their activities and are appealing for more donations.
With the distribution of tents the most pressing need for the moment, relief organizations are finding them in seriously short supply. Pakistani manufacturers, for example, can produce only 20,000 tents a year. Importing tents from other countries is expensive and involves a long wait.
As Afghans tend to construct mud-and-stone walls around their tents in the more established areas, aid officials also have begun bringing in tarpaulins, which, although not as satisfactory as tents, at least provide basic protection against the wind, rain, and snow.
Although Pakistani officials repeatedly tell visitors that the government has been faithfully handing out the equivalent of four rupees (40 cents) a day to refugees as pocket money, I saw little sign of this.
Almost all the refugees I spoke to said they had not received any money since last August. Most of them received none at all.
In some areas, Pakistani government officials claim to issue foodstuffs and basic consumer items to refugees instead of money. "It makes it much easier to issue them goods directly," one official explained. "It simplifies our accounts."
Many Pakistani officials appeared to be genuinely concerned about the plight of the refugees and performed their relief tasks conscientiously. But there have been reports of corruption. One high provincial official was mysteriously removed from his post, apparently for misdirecting funds. Pakistani bureaucracy also has done much to slow down and stifle relief operations.
For Pakistan, the present refugee problem is just as much an economic problem as it is a political one. The cost of maintaining such a vast number of refugees within its own frontiers is exorbitant for a country that has enough underfed, unemployed, and illiterate people of its own.
The influx of refugees also has begun to cause resentment among local residents. Food produce in the marketplaces is in short supply and increased in price. Refugees have allowed their livestock to graze on pastures owned by their hosts, much to the anger of many Pakistani villagers.
Emergency food, blankets, and medical stocks, normally kept for possible disasters, such as earthquakes, inside Pakistan, have been distributed to the refugees, causing further resentment.
"This is a regional problem," one Pakistani government official emphasized to me in Peshawar. "We cannot cope with this situation on our own. We want other countries to care, too."
International and private relief organizations have been moving in with striking rapidity, but the pure logistics of the situation, the difficulty of transportation, the climate, and particularly the increasing number of refugees are not making it an easy task.