Inside a Pakistani camp for Afghan refugees

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The 75 Afghan first-graders chant out Pashto letters and then anti-Russian slogans, thrusting clenched fists into the air with each chorus of ''Allah O Akbar'' (God is great).

Their teacher, once a college science and geometry instructor in Afghanistan, nods approvingly but says he will not be continuing his lessons much longer.

''After I settle my family in Pakistan, I will go back to Afghanistan for jihad (holy war) against the Russian Army,'' Muhammad Daud says. He spent five months with the Afghan resistance before bringing his family to Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.

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Outside his mud-walled family compound a few minutes' walk away, Jhulam Muhammad shows off his still-unnamed 10-day-old daughter. He says he, too, will be gone shortly.

He has been back less than two weeks from the fighting in Afghanistan's Nangahar Province. But he plans only a month's stay in this sprawling refugee camp where his family has lived for nearly two years. ''My brother is fighting now. When he returns, then I will go,'' he explains.

Men of fighting age do not stay long in Nasir Bagh Camp 2. They come to settle family affairs and take a break from warfare. Then they slip back over the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border for another attack on Soviet and Afghan government troops.

Their comings and goings punctuate the lives of some 1,072 families who have settled here. The refugees are helped by the Pakistan government, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and a host of voluntary aid agencies.

As a safe haven and source of at least minimal food, housing, and medical care for fighters' families and survivors, camps such as Nasir Bagh 2 are a key - if indirect - underpinning for the Afghan resistance.

Nearly 7,000 people live in the camp, grouping their tents and mud houses into Afghan village-style family compounds surrounded by mud walls. Just down the road is Nasir Bagh Camp 1, housing 7,000 more refugees.

The two camps were originally one unit, says administrator Hymayun Durrani, but it had to be split for administrative purposes.

Outside the tent that serves as his office, several dozen men - most of them elderly - sit waiting around cardboard cases of cooking oil marked with the symbols of the European Economic Community and the Alliance for Progress. They have come to collect their families' rations of edible oil - 900 grams (about 2 pounds) a person per month.

At other times they will come back for the rest of their monthly rations: 15 kilograms of wheat, 600 grams of sugar, 900 grams of skim milk powder, 90 grams of tea leaves per person.

In addition there is a flat grant of 50 Pakistani rupees, slightly under $5 per head a month, and each family is given a tent and quilts.

They gather their own wood for cooking fires, a task that requires long treks from the barren, eroded campground.

Water is easier: Wells have been dug, a water tanker calls twice a day, and underground pipes are being laid to carry drinking water to central points in the camp.

Many families brought livestock with them over the mountain passes. They graze them where they can.

Some refugees have set up small shops outside the camp; others earn money in and around the city as laborers, truck and taxi drivers, construction workers, farmhands, and shop attendants.

The food given to refugees, plus their competition for work and grazing land, has sparked tensions with Peshawar residents. But what surprises some longtime Peshawaris is not that there is friction, but that there is so little of it.

''There has been concern that the saturation point would be reached, and everything would go bang,'' one resident says. ''But it has not been reached. Each time we have moved toward it, it has receded.''

One reason is their tribal heritage. ''We are all Pathans,'' says camp administrator Durrani, a Pakistani civil servant. ''This is the reason we have no difficulty in dealing with them. Our customs, religion, and traditions are the same.''

The Afghan influx has spawned a refugee management network that employs more than 6,600 persons to transport and deliver food and other relief supplies; run some 240 camps; keep the books; supervise camp schools, clinics, and water systems.

Pakistan is playing host to 2.4 million Afghan refugees, by government estimate.

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