Afghan refugees in Pakistan; one man's aid program

The red-turbaned Arab climbed out of his car and gingerly forced his way through the clamoring refugee women and children. While rebel Afghan guards wielding stikcs and rifles channeled the swelling crowd into line, the Arab began distributing crisp brand new bank notes to a sea of outstretched hands.

Every morning, visiting Saudi Arabian businessman Suleiman Al Rashid left his luxury Western-style hotel in this former British colonial tribal town, followed by a retinue of servants carrying suitcases crammed with one hundred rupee ($10) notes. He then drove to one of the dozen Afghan refugee camps that have sprung up over the past year in western Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

There, with thousands of Afghans patiently waiting for his arrival at every camp, the wealthy Arab handed out a total of several hundred thousand dollars worth of free rupees.

"I am doing this completely on my own, and not for any government," explains the Riyadh-based businessman. During his sortees into the countryside, Mr. Rashid claims to have personally helped more than 50,000 of the estimated 700, 000 Afghan refugees now exiled along Pakistan's border areas.

"We Muslims must help one another if we are to fight the Russian enemy," he said while making an afternoon tour of a rebel medical clinic on the outskirts of Peshawar's dirtridden and traffic-clogged bazaar. No less than 2,000 expectant tribesmen -- the women and children had been shunted off to a seperate yard near the entrance -- had congregated outside since early morning.

Seemingly oblivious of the near-riots he caused in his passing, Mr. Rashid explained that this charitable gesture was only a form of zakat,m whereby all good Muslims are supposed to give part of their earnings to the world's poor and distressed. "I must give $25,000 for every million that I make," he observed.

With thousands of Afghan refugees needing donations simply to survive, it did not take long for the word to get aournd. Within two days, several hundred tribesmen had gathered in front of his hotel. Dozens more sat waiting in the lobby or in the corridors outside his room. And along the main highway where Mr. Rashid was expected to pass, hundreds stood or crouched in the dust. But wherever he appeared, there was never enough to go round.

Faced by serious food, medicine, and tent shortages, Pakistan's rapidly increasing refugee population, an estimated 25,000 new arrivals every week, is in a preacarious state.

Al Rashid's effort may be quick and unconventional, but they hardly solve the problem. Despite vast promises of aid, relief is barely trickling in to the lesser accessible parts of western Pakistan's desert and mountain terrain. Some camps have received no relief at all.

Certain Muslim countries have demonstrated emphatic solidarity with their tribal brothers. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have already sent desperately needed foodstuffs, blankets, and clothing. The United Arab Emirates have donated $1 million worth of supplies, while two Abu Dhabi businessmen plan, like Mr. Rashid , to hand out $400,000 in cash directly to refugees in the field.

As for the international aid, UN agencies have budgeted an aggregates $55 million, while various private organizations such as the World's Church Service and Caritas have also moved in

UN organizations are now trying to completely revise their relief operations in view of rising numbers.

"It will totally depend on the situation in Afghanistan," said the commissioner for Afghan refugees in Peshawar. "We cannot project what will happen." Foreign relief groups, however, are already talking of a possible one million refugees in the months to come.

Over 500,000 Afghans have now been officially registered. But UN authorities automatically add another 20 to 30 percent to account for those who have not reported to government stations.

The foremost problem among the relief organizations is the actual distribution of supplies. "To give an idea of how much we must deal with," noted one world food program official, "we reckon on 200 metric tons of wheat, 20 tons of dal [a kind of lentil or pea used in soups in India, a prime source of protein], 15 tons of skim milk, and 15 tons of vegetable oil per day just to feed half a million people. And then you've got the problem of transporting the food to them."

A large portion of supplies is simply not getting through. Hampered by Pakistan's stifling central bureaucracy, delivery can take up to six weeks from depots in the Arabian seaport of Karachi.

May camps also lie in remote regions, two days' journey by road from the nearest airport. In one area, observes were unable to visit a camp because two feuding villages were staging a bloody vendetta shoot-out, blocking the road for 24 hours.

Relief organizations are also complaining that the federal government is holding up efforts to distribute directly to the refugees. "We now have a representative dealing with Islamabad for show purposes," said the official, "but we are going right ahead with our own thing. If we did everything by the rules, we'd be tied down for weeks."

American relief church workers Robert Poudrier spoke of official attempts to prevent him from bringing in a truckload of blankets and clothes to one needy camp. "When the refugees saw us drive away without leaving our supplies, they started a riot." In some camps, however, Mr. Poudrier found more understanding official.

"I would welcome relief agencies that want to go straight to the people," admitted one provincial whose powers of decision are tied by federal government, "but the Islamabad government is against this for reasons of its own."

Normally hardy tribesmen are beginning to suffer from serious malnutrition and other ailments, aggravated by subzero temperatures. "Some of these camps are just appalling," observed a West German official. "There are hardly any medical teams to deal with them."

Authorities expect conditions to get worse. "For the moment," said Dr. Francis Charhon, a member of France's volunteer Medecins sans Frontiere helping the UNHCR (United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees) to gauge medical reqirements, "it varies from camp to camp. But within two weeks or so we're going to face difficult complications."

Many refugees do not even have tents. They are forced to sleep behind rock and bush shelters. In one area, 20 children reportedly died from exposure, and in another a mysterious infection wiped out 90 tribesmen.

Open sores, tuberculosis, bronchitis, and dysentery are accepted ailments. "But we may soon have a serious outbreak of epidemics on our hands," said one Afghan doctor.

The world finally appears to be responding to the situation. But unless Pakistani bureaucracy can be overcome, which seems unlikely, the situation could become more entangled. Fortunately, the winter has been milder than usual in many areas, but numbers threaten to collapse the system.

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