Between war and a hard place

No one willingly chooses the life of a refugee.

Like most members of her village in northern Afghanistan, Abadan didn't leave during the Soviet invasion of 1979. She didn't leave in the 1980s, when Muslim religious warriors bloodied the nose of the Soviet superpower. And she didn't leave during the 1990s, when Afghan rebels pummeled each other for the right to rule Afghanistan.

But in December, Abadan's village was caught in a crossfire of heavy shelling. Dozens died, including her nephew. Abadan and her husband decided they could no longer safely raise their four daughters in Afghanistan. That decision created a cascade of difficult choices.

To pay for their escape to Pakistan, Abadan sold her livestock, one cow at a time. But all her neighbors were selling their stock as well, which pushed prices lower with each new cow. Then she sold extra clothing. Her wedding jewelry went next. Then her cookware, and finally the windows and door frames of

her home. Today, Abadan and her family have the clothes they wear, a few blankets, and a single aluminum pot. "Whatever we had, we sold piece by piece," she says without a note of complaint. "This is the only pot, and I use it for gathering water, for cooking food, for making tea." Out of habit, she offers a visitor a cup of tea.

"We hoped it would be better here, but it didn't turn out like that," says the young mother, who also now cares for her nephew's three orphaned children. "But," she says, with a smile, "there is no fighting."

Afghan refugees are flowing out of the country once again in the highest numbers in almost 10 years. Driven by the harsh confluence of famine and war, they are arriving at the Pakistani border by the thousands, trickling into already-bursting refugee camps around Peshawar by the hundreds each day. This influx has aid workers scrambling to provide the very basics of life - food, clothing, blankets, tents - to people who have sold or lost everything they own.

Politically, the mass migration of some 150,000 Afghan refugees into Pakistan - along with 350,000 more displaced people within Afghanistan - couldn't come at a worse time. Foreign aid that has supported Afghan refugees since 1979 is drying up, as many Western nations give up hope of a lasting peace in Afghanistan and turn their attention to other crises. Compassion within Pakistan - the nation that bore the brunt of the 6.2 million refugees who have left Afghanistan in 21 years - is also diminishing.

Meanwhile, there is very little sign of fatigue on the part of the two main warring factions. On one side are the ultraconservative Taliban, the student-led rebels who enforce a strict interpretation of Islam on the 90 percent of Afghanistan that they now control. On the other side is a small, fractious, but well-funded Northern Alliance of mujahideen, some of whom helped drive out the Soviets in 1989 only to later turn on one another.

Drought and the looming prospect of famine make the current influx of refugees different from past crises, aid workers say. Last year, Afghan farmers produced some 1.1 million fewer tons of grain than are required to feed the nation. This year, the shortfall of the June harvest is expected to be 2.3 million tons. The result for those Afghans who stay behind could be devastating.

"Peshawar is a bad situation, but it's just the tip of the iceberg," says Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Assistance to Afghanistan. "We are afraid that some people are too impoverished to make it to Herat," she says, referring to an Afghan city where some 80,000 displaced persons are living under tents. "The ones left behind will be in a bad way."

Even in the Peshawar camps themselves, aid workers say they can hardly keep up with the calls for help. In a portion of an old refugee camp called Jalozai, the new refugees have been arriving by the hundreds each day, and have encroached on an old refugee cemetery. There is no water, no food, and no tents. Jalozai is a holding area, where refugees survive on the food they have brought, or by begging.

In the more established camp of Akora Khattak, newcomers sleep under plastic sheeting propped up by sticks. Even there, however, many refugees say they aren't receiving adequate food and water. A shipment of US supplies arrived last week. Another, sent to Herat, arrived Saturday. But aid workers say more is needed.

Beneath each sheet of plastic here is a desperate study in survival and resilience. Torpekai, a widowed mother of six, says she largely survives by begging along the nearby highway to Peshawar. "Yesterday my kids went to bed hungry, but this day a shopkeeper took pity on me and gave me rice," she says, surrounded by her children. The eldest is 13. The youngest is 2. "I boiled it this afternoon, and now they have something to eat at least."

In the sprawling camp called Shamshatoo, Abadan and her family are slightly better off. They have a canvas tent and a small windbreak of plastic to protect them from the constant blowing dust. And they have enough food for each day, supplemented by the money Abadan's husband earns by working day jobs in Peshawar as a laborer.

Their children play as if nothing has changed. Some toss rocks at a target in a game resembling horseshoes. Others make dry-earth sandcastles. One young girl runs with a kite made of two sticks and plastic sheeting from a ripped tent, releasing it into the winds of a cloudless sky.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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