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Afghan refugees: too much sun, too few tents

(Page 2 of 2)

"It takes something incredible to force a man to leave his home or country," he observes. "In this case, the Afghans have left because of fear. But relatively speaking, the problems here could be a lot worse."

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Many of the earlier refugees managed to reach Pakistan with their own vehicles, livestock, and belongings. Most new arrivals, however, come with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Their villages and their homes, they say, have been destroyed in bombings. Many have fled for fear of being arrested or killed.

At least 17 international government and private relief organizations -- ranging from CARE and UNICEF to the World Council of Churches -- are helping the Pakistani government provide food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, and other aid.

Contributions have come in from the European Community, United States, Japan, Switzerland, Britain, and other countries as a result of a UNHCR appeal early this year.

The League of Red Cross Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross made a similar appeal to assist 100,000 refugees. "Even when we receive donations," noted Mr. Jenkins as he held up a telex announcing a $100,000 contribution from Ontario, Canada, "it can take five or six weeks for the bureaucratic machinery to let us touch the money. Until then, we have to hold back on operations."

The UNHCR food program, which issues rations of wheat, lentils, edible oil, dried skimmed milk, sugar, and tea, works in close cooperation with the World Food Program. Apart from procuring additional food supplies, the WFP is in charge of monitoring all food assistance.

Many of the complications that arise in refugee assistance could be easily resolved by showing the Pakistani government, inexperienced in massive relief work, how to improve distribution. But serious problems remain.

A comprehensive health plan involving 20 initial mobile dispensary units, medical supplies, and doctors is being slowly implemented. Although some rebel groups run their own poorly equipped clinics for injured mujahideen, the relief agencies tend to remain clear of the political parties.

The UNHCR, for example, is trying to set up facilities for 29 Afghan doctors without political affiliations to provide better medical coverage for the 67 camps now in existence. The International Committee of the Red Cross has already established two mobile medical units in North Waziristan and Kurram tribal agencies. These are opposite Afghanistan's Paktia and Nangahar provinces , where most of the refugees are concentrated.

International relief officials consider present medical facilities totally inadequate, although there has been no sign yet of epidemics. Malnutrition does not appear to be particularly trenchant either.

The Pakistan government forbids bringing in foreign doctors, claiming that enough can be found at home. But there are serious problems in recruiting female medical personnel. Pakistani female doctors are reluctant to tour the tribal areas because of cultural restraints, such as where tribal men have low opinions of "progressive" women.

"This makes it very difficult for us," said one European medical officer monitoring the relief program. "Many Afghan women refuse to allow themselves to be examined by male doctors. This means that we have little idea of health conditions among women hidden behind closed tent flaps."

This creates a considerable predicament since the majority of refugees are old men, women, and children.