HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; Vignettes of hope in a world of despair

In the rapidly encroaching darkness, we could hardly distinguish the three wooden shepherd huts with their turf roots. A biting wind blasted down from the snow-covered pass linking Afghanistan with Pakistan just across the frontier.

All of us -- British photographer Peter Jouvenal, five Afghan rebel escorts, and myself -- were exhausted and hungry. Living off nan (Afghan bread), mulberries that we picked ourselves, occasional nomad-made yogurt, and a rare egg or piece of chicken, we had been trekking for 10 days through the mountains and barren plains around Soviet- occupied Jalalabad.

Some of the villages in our path lay in partial ruin from communist helicopter, MIG, and tank raids. And every day we came across dozens of afghans fleeing the fighting.

Groping our way along a fallen log over a snow-swollen torrent that roared through a narrow gorge, we reached the three huts, long abandoned by their owners. Refugee families, their campfires glowing enticingly, were occupying two of them for the night.

The third hut was a ramshackle structure reeking of cow dung. The Afghans prepared a fire and we lay back on our rucksacks to dry out and watch the licking flames. We had nothing to eat.

Suddenly, the bearded face of a refugee tribesman appeared in the doorway. He carried a battered, soot-stained pan half-filled with gritty rice. Our eyes popped. The Afghans passed it around and each of us scooped a handful. What a feast.

For the first time a hint of a smile appeared on the refugee's face. He vanished only to return with a tray laden with glasses and a huge silver pot of piping hot tea.

With his own family to feed, the Afghan can ill afford to give his rice away. Yet he apologizes for not being able to offer sugar with the tea. "The fighting ," he explains. "We have so little. But yor are our guests.You must tell the world the truth about what the communists are doing to our people and country. You will always be welcome."

Traveling to parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, and America over the past year to report on the plight of refugees, I have seen time and time again the same wrenching expressions of despair, misery, and neglect.

In northern Thailand, in western Somalia, in Germany, or in Florida, human wretchedness looks the same. And yet one cannot help but marvel at the extraordinary pride and dignity that many refugees manage to convey -- no matter how desperate their misfortune.

For many, hope is all that they have left. At Sob Tuang in northern Thailand , young Cha Pao Her and his family live in a spacious wood-and-thatch hut with a small vegetable plot outside the front door. Hmong tribal peasants from Laos, they fled the communist Pathet Lao in the spring of 1979.

Now they live in the midst of a crowded hillside refugee camp a few miles from the border. "We can't go back," he says with a meek smile. "We have suffered too much."

How does he see his future? "I don't know. My friends have gone to the United States. I want to go, too. Here I can't do anything." He knows nothing about America, but he knows that he wants to start a new life.

At Lumpini transit camp, a sweltering enclosure in downtown Bangkok, Vietnamese computer specialist Nguyen Xuan Can waits for emigration papers so he can resettle in Ontario, Canada. He and his family are lucky to be alive. Sailing from Vietnam in a small fishing trawler, they were attacked four times by pirates. At least 24 persons on board were killed or drowned. Several women and girls were kidnapped. But Xuan Can and his family are more fortunate than many others in the camp. They hope to leave within three or four weeks. "I know that life will be difficult," he says. "We will have to learn English and start all over again. But we have no choice."

Some 2,000 Laotians, Khmer, and Vietnamese in this camp are waiting to be processed. Some have been here for a year, an incredibly long time for hopw to remain intact. People sleep on palliases, wash clothes, play mah-jongg, or, quite simply, wait. "All everyone does around here is sleep, eat, sleep, eat," comments Xuan Can. "There is nothing else to do."

At Towawa refugee camp in eastern Sudan, some 7,500 Ethiopians live in huts they built themselves at the foot of a shrub-covered plain. While chickens scratch for food, women sit outside making pancake-like bread over eath ovens.

Some men work part time in a nearby town, but most sit around doing nothing. When the rains come, they hope to work in the fields. Some have been here for 10 years.

"We want to go back to Ethiopia, but under the present regime it is not possible," says Johannis Dest, a teacher. "The army there has been killing too many of our people."

Hope for a political solution that will enable them to return to Ethiopia is not enough. So the sudanese government is trying to integrate most of the refugees into their own economy. But this requires far more international support than the government is getting. Refugees, it is plain, need practical help, not pity. Above all, they need to be respected and treated as human beings.

As Poul Hartling, UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, told his reporter in an interview: "When human dignity is violated, refugees are created. When refugees are helped, human dignity is restored."

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