Refugees find little comfort in Pakistan

Aid groups brace for a new influx of Afghan refugees after four days of US-led attacks on Taliban forces.

When Suleiman Shah fled the Panjshir Valley of northeast Afghanistan last week, his farmlands had become the front lines. His home had been destroyed.

After spending five days and his life savings - all $140 of it - traveling with his wife, six sons, and two daughters on a circuitous route to the Afghan city of Jalalabad and finally to the relative safety of Jalozai, a refugee camp in Pakistan, Mr. Shah faces a very uncertain future.

He cannot receive food from relief agencies because Pakistan's government forbids the United Nations from registering any more refugees. And as an illegal alien, he cannot work.

"It was impossible to feed my family at home, so there was not any option to stay in Afghanistan," says Shah, gripping his young son, whose leg is in a cast after being struck by a car in Jalalabad. It was because of the injury that Pakistani border guards let the family into the country.

"After the Sept. 11 attacks, people immediately moved away from their homes, but when there were no attacks they moved back to the cities. The people don't know anything. They are worried. God is only knowing what will happen," says Shah.

As the US-led coalition continues its air attacks on Afghanistan's Taliban rulers, relief agencies in Pakistan are bracing for a humanitarian emergency. But the UN says it is unable to give accurate numbers on the refugee influx because it has not sent employees into border areas or refugee camps, due to security concerns.

Thousands of refugees are reported fleeing the cities of Kabul, Jalalabad, and Kandahar, however, and heading either to home villages or to the border with Pakistan. It's a crisis in everything but name, as tensions grow between relief organizations and Pakistan, a cash-strapped nation that has already borne the cost of hosting some 3 million refugees since the start of the Afghan conflict 23 years ago.

"We've had several thousand Afghans coming to Peshawar and several thousand coming to Quetta," says Yusuf Hassan, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the capital, Islamabad. Peshawar and Quetta are border cities that have received the bulk of Afghanistan's refugees. "Pakistani authorities say there has been considerable movement out of Jalalabad in the past few days.... In the next two or three days, we'll see the scope of this."

With winter coming, donor nations have already pledged some $600 million in relief aid for Afghanistan, although only $35 million of this has been received. UNICEF has given blankets, food, medicine to some 1.25 million Afghan children inside Afghanistan, but UNICEF spokesman Eric Laroche says, "It's not enough. We need much, much more."

UN food flights to Pakistan, suspended since Sunday, are scheduled to resume today with 10 flights of food and other relief supplies.

Pakistan is also facing internal unrest as a result of the attacks on Afghanistan. Street protests quieted yesterday, though reports from Quetta and Peshawar indicate a continued well of anger among many Pakistanis, especially ethnic Pashtuns.

Pashtuns are the largest Afghan ethnic group.

With reports of Afghan refugees among the anti-US demonstrators, Pakistan's foreign ministry warned that any refugees who participate in "political agitation" would be deported.

UNHCR officials in Islamabad confirm reports that security conditions at or near refugee camps are not only fragile but continue to pose a serious obstacle to humanitarian efforts in the region. Stephanie Bunker, UNHCR spokeswoman, told reporters yesterday that "work on prospective refugee camps in Quetta and Peshawar is on hold," following violence in border towns on Monday. Aid workers cannot move safely or freely, she said.

"A shrinking of the operational environment is visible," says a World Food Program official. UN officials yesterday also offered fresh reports that local Afghan staff in the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad are being beaten by the Taliban and targeted for harassment.

In a defiant press conference at the Taliban Embassy in Islamabad, Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said that the US attacks had killed some 35 civilians and sent thousands fleeing main cities. US airdrops of food were not welcome, he added. "This food and aid going to Afghanistan, and the exchange of blood by the Afghan people, this is a mockery and dishonor to the people of Afghanistan," he said.

As if the war wasn't complex enough, relief groups face an additional challenge in dealing with Pakistan. In November, Pakistan officially closed its border to additional Afghan refugees. This policy held firm in the months since, as a hard winter and one of the worst droughts in 50 years sent 500,000 new refugees into Pakistan. Unable to register these new arrivals, the UN and other relief agencies provided just the basics: tents, blankets, medicines, and food.

Today, with camps filled to capacity, many Afghan newcomers are blending in with local populations in Pakistan, often relying on their families for support. While this takes some of the burden off relief agencies and the Pakistan government, officials here say such self-help may be an illusory solution, because more established refugees often have limited resources.

For their part, Pakistani officials argue that their country simply cannot bear the cost of further Afghan refugees, and certainly not without massive international support. Instead, Pakistan has urged the UN and other agencies to move aid into Afghanistan.

With the scope of this humanitarian relief problem still to be determined, aid officials say that they are preparing for three likely scenarios.

• Move food, tents, blankets, medicines, and other supplies to camps inside Afghanistan.

• Set up new camps inside Pakistan, if Pakistan opens its borders or is simply unable to control the flow of refugees.

• Focus current resources on existing camps in Pakistan, whether Pakistan opens its borders or not.

"There are so many question marks," says David Snyder, head of the emergency response team for Catholic Relief Services in Islamabad. "Everyone is preparing for something big, but nobody is sure how this is going to unfold."

At Jalozai, a camp of some 60,000 families 18 miles from Peshawar, many refugees say they want the world to see their conditions, and to respond.

Shireen Agha arrived with his family four months ago. Since then, they have lived under a makeshift tent of blankets and burlap bags that once held relief grain for established refugees in other camps. During the punishing summer, the UN dug latrines and provided some portable water tanks, but has provided no food or medicine.

"A couple of times the UN people visit us," says Agha, who acts as a representative for the 300 families in his section of Jalozai. "They take our photo, they bring journalists, and they go back and still we have received nothing."

Nader Khan, another refugee who once fought with the mujahideen against Soviet troops, says he admires the Taliban, but thinks they should be removed because they haven't managed to bring peace to Afghanistan. "The Taliban did a great job. I handed my own weapons over to the Taliban," he says with a grin. "But although they are good people, they have never stopped the blood from flowing."

Like most refugees here, Mr. Khan plans to return home, if and when peace comes. "This is not a place for a human being to stay," he says, pointing to the open field filled with makeshift tents. "This is a place for animals."

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