Afghan refugees: too much sun, too few tents
Bajaur tribal agency, Pakistan
"We should have finished with this district ages ago, but we are still waiting for more tents to be delivered," shouted the West German Red Cross worker, a student volunteer, as his brand-new Landrover jolted along a gutted oxcart track throwing up billows of stinging hot dust.Skip to next paragraph
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Several hundred yards ahead, straddling a low-lying ridge overlooking freshly harvested wheat fields, lay the bleached tents of a sunbaked Afghan refugee camp.
"I was supposed to distribute another 1,600 desperately needed tents," remarked the young German. "But the Pakistani manufacturers simply can't keep up with demand."
An intense blast of midday heat greeted us as we climbed out of the vehicle to shake hands with a delegation of tribal leaders from the camp. In between tents, one could glimpse the furtive figures of dark-veiled women baking fresh chapatti bread over smoking outdoor clay ovens.
With the playful shrieks of half-naked children echoing from a near-dry riverbed, the German added: "Many of these tents house two families and are grossly overcrowded. So you can imagine, in this heat, it's just not too much fun."
The distribution of tents in this remote mountainous tribal agency, with its patchwork of wheat fields and opium cultures planted along the Afghan frontier, illustrates the sort of logistic problems that face relief teams attempting to aid Pakistan's swollen refugee population.
Despite production and transport delays, relief teams plan to issue each five-member Afghan family one locally manufactured tent as part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee's (UNHCR) massive $65 million aid program. Larger families are entitled to two tents.
Here in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, home of the vast majority of the estimated 800,000 registered and unregistered Afghan refugees, UNHCR coordinators hope to distribute a total of 45,000 tents and 10,000 tarpaulins.
Only two months ago, relief teams were striving to hand out as many tents and double quilts as possible to protect refugees from the bitter cold.
Now, with spring temperatures rising to 120 degrees F., tents serve as the only form of protection against the merciless sun. Despite their renowned hardiness, many Afghan tribesmen, who normally migrate to the cooler hills during hot months, are simply not used to such high subtropical temperatures.
From as far away as Hazarajat in Central Afghanistan and Kunduz to the north, thousands of harassed Afghans are forging their way across barren deserts and mountains to escape the fighting and heavy Soviet bombardments in their country.
Since February, when this reporter last visited the frontier regions, the number of Afghan refugees has practically doubled. UNHCR officials predict that by early August, if present trends continue, more than 1 million refugees will jam 80 projected camps in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier. The influx is likely to continue.
Although the aid machinery is acutely overstrained, relief officials believe the situation is as "manageable as can be expected in the circumstances." The Pakistani government, under international guidance, is mainly in charge of the efforts.
David Jenkins, a Canadian sent by the League of Red Cross Societies in Geneva to help coordinate efforts with the Pakistani Red Crescent Society, says all refugees are wretched human beings -- no matter where they are.