Snow, mud -- and Soviets -- make it a bitter winter for Afghan refugees
Chaman, Baluchistan Province, Pakistan — The refugee camps cling like swarms of white butterflies to the rocky, arid plains at the foot of western Pakistan's jagged snow- covered Toba and Kakar mountain ranges.
We catch sight of them as we emerge from a violent snow flurry and clatter in a small van down the winding road of the 8,755-foot-high Khojak Pass that opens the barren Baluchistan hinterland to Afghanistan's now-Soviet-controlled southeastern desert flank.
Surveyed by a string of strategically placed Pakistani military bunkers, we approach the mud-walled frontier town of Chaman. Only a few miles from the border, the town serves as an initial staging post for hundreds of Afghan refugees who slip out of their country every night.
At the main compound of the British colonial-style office of the assistant commissioner for the region, local officials are distributing donated quilt blankets to groups of Afghan refugees.
Sipping hot, heavily sugared green tea over a small iron wood burner, the assistant commissioner tells us -- three other journalists and myself -- that most of the 3,600 tribal refugees in his town have trickled in since the Dec. 27 Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
"Many of them arrive in their own trucks," he said, "but they must cross the desert on unmarked trails. They then bypass the Afghan border controls and come here."
An estimated 700,000 Afghans have already sought refuge in western Pakistan. (Official figures cannot keep up with the flow and are lower.) At least 3,000 cross over every week.
Some of the refugees have found lodging with relatives in the Chaman district , with its population of 100,000 ethnic Pushtuns, Baluchis, and Hazaras. But most of the newcomers have pitched camp in stubbly grazing areas three miles out of town. With recent heavy rains and snowfalls, the normally parched plains have been turned into squelching ankle-deep quagmires.
Four major camps have sprung up around Chaman. Boghra, a haphazard settlement of 20 tents shared among 28 Pushtun Durani families from the Kandahar region of Afghanistan 70 miles away, is the most recent. It overlooks a modest grove of irrigated fruit trees.
Arriving on foot, as well as with a red Bedford transport truck and a Soviet-made jeep, the refugees say they crossed over shortly after New Year's. The frontier post at Spin Baldak -- a rising white border mountain jutting out of the plain six miles away -- had been abandoned in a panic by its Afghans guards. They had feared rebel mujahideen attacks in the aftermath of the Russian invasion.
The hastily erected Boghra camp does not reflect the established order this reporter witnessed among other, more permanent, refugee settlements in western Pakistan. The conditions here are atrocious. Water has to be fetched from the town and there are no sanitary facilities.
The tribesmen, who immediately invite us into their tents for more piping-hot tea, have not yet constructed the traditional dried mud, stone, and straw walls to protect them from the wind, rain, and snow. Instead, they have dug out shallow depressions in the earth over which they have stretched the government-issue tarpaulins. Despite near-freezing temperatures outside, the interiors are surprisingly warm.
The tribesmen are not sure they will stay in this area. "We may go and live with other members of four tribe near Pichin," the white-bearded Malik said, referring to more easily accessible camps a three-hours' drive away. The Malik, or tribal leader, calmly sits cross-legged on the carpeted floor of his tent, politely listening to our questions. Like many of his followers, he wears a tattered Pakistani Army- surplus overcoat.
Standing curiously outside the tent entrance, groups of young boys -- no women or girls are to be seen -- observe the proceedings inside. With unlaced shoes and boots sinking in the mud, they all sport several layers of diverse coats and pullovers that have been donated by refugee authorities.
There are few young men to be seen. "They are fighting with the mujahideen in the mountains over there," the old man proudly announces with a gesture of his head toward the Afghan Hada Mountains 20 miles away. "In Afghanistan, we gave the mujahideen food and shelter when the Khalq soldiers tried to hunt them down."
The refugees say they did not see any Russians during their flight. But there has been much fighting between the mujahideen and government soldiers in the hills, they say. "We left when the Khalqs came to take our land," said the Malik, who ruled as landlord over 1,000 acres of fruit orchards and wheat fields. Members of his tribe worked for him on a 50-50 crop-sharing basis.
The Khalqs under the Taraki and Amin regimes, he says, wanted to distribute his land and leave him with only with 10 acres. The new regime is no different, he says emphatically.
To whom was this land distributed? The old man talks as if in a quiet daze. "To Khalq Party members, to peasants, to favorites," he says.
Were any of his own tribal members offered land? "Oh yes," he says, "but they refused." One refugee sitting two feet away volunteers: "I was offered land, but I refused. It is against Islamic law to steal from one man to give to another."
The Afghans also complain about other forms of repression by the central government. "They tried a school for girls," one man says. "They sent male teachers from Kabul. This is against Islam, too. We don't want our women to be educated."
Not even by women teachers? "No, not even by women. A woman has no face if she shows herself in public like city women," the Malik states solemnly.
None of these rural refugees can read or write. Only the mullah can write, they explain. He is their spiritual leader. But the mullah has been arrested and the tribe does not know whether he is still alive.