Afghan refugees: too much sun, too few tents

"We should have finished with this district ages ago, but we are still waiting for more tents to be delivered," shouted the West German Red Cross worker, a student volunteer, as his brand-new Landrover jolted along a gutted oxcart track throwing up billows of stinging hot dust.

Several hundred yards ahead, straddling a low-lying ridge overlooking freshly harvested wheat fields, lay the bleached tents of a sunbaked Afghan refugee camp.

"I was supposed to distribute another 1,600 desperately needed tents," remarked the young German. "But the Pakistani manufacturers simply can't keep up with demand."

An intense blast of midday heat greeted us as we climbed out of the vehicle to shake hands with a delegation of tribal leaders from the camp. In between tents, one could glimpse the furtive figures of dark-veiled women baking fresh chapatti bread over smoking outdoor clay ovens.

With the playful shrieks of half-naked children echoing from a near-dry riverbed, the German added: "Many of these tents house two families and are grossly overcrowded. So you can imagine, in this heat, it's just not too much fun."

The distribution of tents in this remote mountainous tribal agency, with its patchwork of wheat fields and opium cultures planted along the Afghan frontier, illustrates the sort of logistic problems that face relief teams attempting to aid Pakistan's swollen refugee population.

Despite production and transport delays, relief teams plan to issue each five-member Afghan family one locally manufactured tent as part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee's (UNHCR) massive $65 million aid program. Larger families are entitled to two tents.

Here in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, home of the vast majority of the estimated 800,000 registered and unregistered Afghan refugees, UNHCR coordinators hope to distribute a total of 45,000 tents and 10,000 tarpaulins.

Only two months ago, relief teams were striving to hand out as many tents and double quilts as possible to protect refugees from the bitter cold.

Now, with spring temperatures rising to 120 degrees F., tents serve as the only form of protection against the merciless sun. Despite their renowned hardiness, many Afghan tribesmen, who normally migrate to the cooler hills during hot months, are simply not used to such high subtropical temperatures.

From as far away as Hazarajat in Central Afghanistan and Kunduz to the north, thousands of harassed Afghans are forging their way across barren deserts and mountains to escape the fighting and heavy Soviet bombardments in their country.

Since February, when this reporter last visited the frontier regions, the number of Afghan refugees has practically doubled. UNHCR officials predict that by early August, if present trends continue, more than 1 million refugees will jam 80 projected camps in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier. The influx is likely to continue.

Although the aid machinery is acutely overstrained, relief officials believe the situation is as "manageable as can be expected in the circumstances." The Pakistani government, under international guidance, is mainly in charge of the efforts.

David Jenkins, a Canadian sent by the League of Red Cross Societies in Geneva to help coordinate efforts with the Pakistani Red Crescent Society, says all refugees are wretched human beings -- no matter where they are.

"It takes something incredible to force a man to leave his home or country," he observes. "In this case, the Afghans have left because of fear. But relatively speaking, the problems here could be a lot worse."

Many of the earlier refugees managed to reach Pakistan with their own vehicles, livestock, and belongings. Most new arrivals, however, come with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Their villages and their homes, they say, have been destroyed in bombings. Many have fled for fear of being arrested or killed.

At least 17 international government and private relief organizations -- ranging from CARE and UNICEF to the World Council of Churches -- are helping the Pakistani government provide food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, and other aid.

Contributions have come in from the European Community, United States, Japan, Switzerland, Britain, and other countries as a result of a UNHCR appeal early this year.

The League of Red Cross Societies and the International Committee of the Red Cross made a similar appeal to assist 100,000 refugees. "Even when we receive donations," noted Mr. Jenkins as he held up a telex announcing a $100,000 contribution from Ontario, Canada, "it can take five or six weeks for the bureaucratic machinery to let us touch the money. Until then, we have to hold back on operations."

The UNHCR food program, which issues rations of wheat, lentils, edible oil, dried skimmed milk, sugar, and tea, works in close cooperation with the World Food Program. Apart from procuring additional food supplies, the WFP is in charge of monitoring all food assistance.

Many of the complications that arise in refugee assistance could be easily resolved by showing the Pakistani government, inexperienced in massive relief work, how to improve distribution. But serious problems remain.

A comprehensive health plan involving 20 initial mobile dispensary units, medical supplies, and doctors is being slowly implemented. Although some rebel groups run their own poorly equipped clinics for injured mujahideen, the relief agencies tend to remain clear of the political parties.

The UNHCR, for example, is trying to set up facilities for 29 Afghan doctors without political affiliations to provide better medical coverage for the 67 camps now in existence. The International Committee of the Red Cross has already established two mobile medical units in North Waziristan and Kurram tribal agencies. These are opposite Afghanistan's Paktia and Nangahar provinces , where most of the refugees are concentrated.

International relief officials consider present medical facilities totally inadequate, although there has been no sign yet of epidemics. Malnutrition does not appear to be particularly trenchant either.

The Pakistan government forbids bringing in foreign doctors, claiming that enough can be found at home. But there are serious problems in recruiting female medical personnel. Pakistani female doctors are reluctant to tour the tribal areas because of cultural restraints, such as where tribal men have low opinions of "progressive" women.

"This makes it very difficult for us," said one European medical officer monitoring the relief program. "Many Afghan women refuse to allow themselves to be examined by male doctors. This means that we have little idea of health conditions among women hidden behind closed tent flaps."

This creates a considerable predicament since the majority of refugees are old men, women, and children.

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