Proud tribesmen shuttle between war and peace
Bajaur, northwest Pakistan — "We take turns in fighting. Some of us rest with our families, while others cross into Afghanistan to make jihad [holy war] against the Russians." Rahmad Jan is a former agricultural inspector from Kunar Province on the other side of the jagged, pine-stubbled mountains that separate Pakistan from Afghanistan.
Wearing a secondhand tweed jacket, pajama trousers, and sandals, Jan sits amid an assembly of solemn, turbaned Afghan tribesmen in a spacious tent donated by the West German Red Cross. He gestures disparagingly in the direction of his ragaved and battle-torn homeland, beyond the cheerless refugee camp in this tribal frontier that is now his home.
"Over there," he says, "Russian planes destroyed everything with their bombs. Our homes. Our Fields. We came here to seek shelter with our women and children. We came with nothing. Just the clothes we are wearing. Now we must live like nomads."
While the men sit cross-legged on worn, spread-out carpets to discuss their plight, women in dark chadors bustle out of sight doing household chores. Countless fires and dried mud ovens smoke lazily outside the sprawling hillside tents under the piercing sun as women prepare the midday meal or bake nan, the flat Afghan bread.
Dark-haired girls clothed in oversized dresses hover a safe distance away, shyly observing the proceedings. A gaggle of curious boys, more adventurous, clog the entrance of the tent with expectant, dusty faces.
"We want our freedom," announces a middled-aged tribesman pensively stroking his graying whiskers. "The Russians must leave. If they want Afghanistan, they will have to kill us all. for us it is an honor to die in battle against the infidels."
As in other parts of the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan, tens of thousands of Afghan tribesman have streamed into the Bajaur region since the Soviet invation of Afghanistan last Christmas.In the past six months the refugee population here has more than doubled -- to roughly 132,000.
Unlike earlier refugees who dribbled into Pakistan in the spring of 1978, when brutal repression under the communist Khalq (People's) regime of Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin grew steadily worse, many of the recent arrivals have been unable to bring anything with them but the barest of personal possessions. Food, shelter, clothing, and medicine must be provided by the UNHCR, the League of Red Cross Societies, the Pakistani government, and various voluntary agencies.
Influxes have been particularly high in Bajaur because of the frequent heavy fighting in Kunar Province and Nuristan. According to reliable sources, numerous villages have been destroyed by the Soviet and Afghan government forces in an attempt to break the stubborn resistance of the mujahideen ("holy warriors").
Some reports suggest, however, that the destruction of Afghan villages is increasing rather than diminishing that resistance. As destitute families pour across the border into Pakistan, more and more angry tribesmen are leaving their women and children in the camps and returning to join the mujahideen bands inside Afghanistan.
With refugees still flocking across, the communists have mined the passes, valleys, and footpaths with antipersonnel devices and booby traps, adding to the death toll among men, women, and children.
Homeless and unable to cultivate their fields or pursue their trades, men like Jan have escorted their families to the safety of Pakistan. But the communists are fully aware that many mujahideen use the refugee camps as a convenient fallback base from which to continue their struggle against the Kabul regime. This may have been the reason for the three attacks last month against frontier villages and refugee camps, including Bajaur.
There has always been a constant flow of mujahideen, some of whom double as smugglers, between the two countries. This worries the Pakistani regime of Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Calling the Afghan attacks "acts of provocation," the Pakistanis have proposed moving a number of camps back from the frontier region. By doing so, they hope to not only discourage further military thrusts into their territory, but also to exercise greater control over mujahideen movements.
In recent weeks tension has been running high in Baluchistan between Pakistani villagers and the tens of thousands of refugees in the area. Disputes have broken out over grazing and water rights in the barren region as well as over fule supplies.
UNHCR officials warn that more relief assistance, particularly warm clothes and blankets, will be needed to help the refugees through the harsh winters. Although the camps are more organized than earlier in the year, relief teams still are struggling to provide adequate shelter for newcomers. Medical care and hygiene remain prime concerns.
"The Afghans are simply not used to living in such concentrated spaces," notes a senior UNHCR official. "We are finding it practically impossible to persuade to them make use of sanitary facilities."
Refugees use the fields surrounding the Bajaur camps and the normally parched river valley for their toilet needs instead of the dugout latrines -- thus increasing the danger of epidemic diseases.
Another serious problem, characteristic of refugee camps throughout the world , is boredom. Life in the camps represents a disconcerting and often perplexing challenge to the masculinity and pride of male tribesmen used to holding their heads high. In peaceful times they had their land, jobs, or livestock to herd. Now they have nothing but food, clothes, and shelter donated by charities.
"Only a small portion of the men can actually cross back into Afghanistan to fight," observes one source. "They have not got enough weapons or ammunition. As a result, they have nothing to do. They cannot fulfill their traditional male roles and suffer enormous psychological problems from this."
For the women, life has not really changed much. They go on cooking, washing , and caring for the children. All that remains is to sit, talk, and dream of the day they can return to their homeland.