HELPING THE WORLD'S HOMELESS; A tale of Russians, rubble, refugees

"The West does not really care about Afghanistan," asserts an exiled Kabul University professor now living in this bustling Pakistani city. "You talk of helping us but you do nothing. The Russians still occupy our country and our people continue to die."

Many Afghans, some of whom keep surprisingly well informed through short-wave radio broadcasts, express similar sentiments. They are distressed by what they see as the West's failure to take a firm stand against Soviet military expansionism.

There is also intense disappointment, particularly among resistance groups, with the reluctance of the United States and its allies to provide them with much more than humanitarian relief.

As far as the Afghan rebel is concerned, support for his cause against the communist regime in Kabul does not mean just tents, blankets, food, and medicine. It means weapons, too.

"We have not given up hope," says the professor. "But we realize now that we cannot rely on the West for assistance. We are on our own."

Nevertheless, conflict, starvation, and repression inside Afghanistan continue to force refugees -- most of them women, children, and old men -- to flee into Pakistan. Soviet occupation forces show no signs of leaving and persist in their attacks on villages, bonbing houses, mowing down tribesmen with helicopter gunships, and sowing the land with mines and booby traps.

According to the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are now roughly 1.2 million Afghans seeking refuge in Pakistani camps. Other experts place the number at 1.5 million. Thousands cross the frontier every week. An additional 300,000 are believed to have sought asylum in Iran.

Relief officials stress that to ensure refugee survival, particularly during winter months, continued international humanitarian aid remains vital. In 1980 alone, almost $100 million was needed for food, shelter, health supplies, water, and other requirements to sustain the swelling population. More may be necessary for 1981.

"With no end to the conflict in sight, it is difficult to determine how long these influxes will continue. Whenever reports of heavy fighting come through, we get new streams of refugees," says a representative of the League of Red Cross Societies. The league, with the Pakistani Red Crescent Society, provides much of the camps' health care.

Relief officials also point out that tens of thousands of Afghans, mainly from the outlying villages, are said to have converged on Kabul in recent months to escape the war. Some sources say the Kabul regime is providing those displaced persons with little or no relief because many are believed to be rebel sympathizers.

Soviet armed forces, now estimated at roughly 100,000 men, have been occupying Afghanistan since their sudden invasion last Dec. 26. Yet they only barely control Kabul and other major towns.

Although the resistance groups remain as divided as ever -- united only in their spirited hatred for the communists -- the poorly armed mujahideen ("holy warriors") continue to fight on hundreds of fronts throughout the country with varying degrees of success.

Reliable sources maintain that not one of Afghanistan's 28 provinces lies in government hands. Only in the Wakhan corridor of Badakhshan Province -- the northeasterly "tongue" sandwiched between Pakistan, the USSR, and China -- have the Soviets managed to assert full control by more or less annexing the region.

The area is populated by Kirghiz and Pamiri nomads who have put up little resistance to the communists. About 1,000 Kirghiz have sought refuge in northern Pakistan. Relief officials say they are now seeking asylum in Alaska, yak herds and all.

Since the communist takeover in April 1978 by Khalq (People's Party) leader Nur Muhammad Taraki, sources estimate that up to 5000,000 Afghans may have succumbed in the strife. While many are known to have been killed in direct clashes or bombings, others have died from starvation or communist repression. One brutal example: An April 1979 massacre in Kyralla (or Kerala) in which more than 1,000 men and boys were machine-gunned to death by Afghans government troops and their Soviet advisers.

The number of Soviet casualties are equally difficult to gauge. But various sources say that between 2,000 and 10,000 Soviet military personnel have died since the invasion. Recent reports from Kabul state that 20 to 25 Soviet coffins are airlifted out each week.

While Afghan military personnel continue to defect, resistance groups have penetrated the cities. Diplomatic reports earlier this month said that Kandahar , Afghanistan's second-largest city, has been partly taken over by resistance forces. The rebels reportedly have imposed a curfew and occupied certain administrative positions. Soviet forces have since bombed the city, causing heavy casualties, these sources say.

Because of increasing assassinations, Soviet soldiers dare not walk the streets alone. In Kabul, there have been repeated student demonstrations. Political tracts, so-called "letters of the night," circulate freely. Military supplies must either be flown into Soviet bases or transported along main highways under protection of heavily armed convoys.

There are strong indications, however, that the soviets are learning how to deal with the resistance forces. Although Soviet troops have tended to avoid direct combat, prefering instead to rely on armored attacks supported by helicopter gunships, they have now brought in specially trained mountain troops.

Over the past year entire villages have been ruthlessly razed, fields mined, and forest cover defoliated, forcing tribesmen and their families to flee to Pakistan.In retaliation for guerrilla ambushes, the Soviets reportedly have engaged in systematic bombings of populated areas. Even the mujahideen admit there is little they can do against such military superiority.

Small numbers of British, Soviet, and American-made arms are finding their way into the hands of the rebels through purchases by certain Arab countries, sources say. But the mujahideen still desperately lack the strategic weaponry to stave off devastating assaults.

"Just give us antiaircraft guns and missiles so that we can at least defend ourselves" has been the indefatigable cry in guerrilla circles ever since the invasion.

To sow terror and confusion, the Soviets have dropped light green plastic "butterfly bombs" that main rather than kill victims. There also reports of booby-trapped toys, guns, cigarrete packs, watches, and pens, as well as the use of delayed mechanism bombs and chemical weapons. Hospitals in Pakistan and doctors recently returned from guerrilla- controlled regions of Afghanistan report increasing numbers of casualties among refugee men, women, and children.

The Soviets also have begun to exploit divisions among resistance groups. Using hard cash to enlist disgruntled and often improverished tribesmen, the communist appear to be adopting the British colonial practice of "divide and rule." Some reports suggest that this has begun to have a limited effect.

Nonetheless, support for the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul appears to be weakening further. And there is bitter infighting among the two communist factions, the ruling but minority Parcham (Banner) group of Babrak Karmal and the majority Khalq group.

To broaden appeal and soften communist policy, the PArcham has been advocating less drastic agricultural and educational reforms than those brutally enforced by the Khalq prior to the overthrow of Hafizullah Amin last Christmas. Parcham ministers ostentatiously make a point of being seen at mosques for prayers. They hope to persuade traditional Afghans that they are pro-Islamic and not infidels. Few take them seriously.

As a result, the ranks of exiles abroad swell with fleeing government officials and military defectors. Refugee camps in Pakistan are not only packed with rural dwellers, but also civil servants, merchants, students, and young men escaping the draft.

Many Afghans, particularly educated ones, have begun to harbor hopes of emigrating to the United States.While visiting resistance groups in Peshawar, this reporter was often asked by Afghans how to obtain visas for the US and other Western countries. US State Department officials say that under the quota system only 1,000 Afghans a year are likely to be eligible for permits.

Some observers feel that Washington should allow more Afghan students to enter the United States -- though without encouraging a mass Afghan migration to the US. These observers also think the US should offer engineers, agricultural experts, and other technicians advanced specialized training.

"If this war ever comes to an end," notes one relief official, "Afghanistan will need a lot of trained people to help rebuild the country."

Meanwhile, faced with the prospect of having to support the refugees for a prolonged period, relief agencies such as the UNHCR, Save the Children Fund, CARE, and the International Rescue Committee have the monumental task of providing them with decent living conditions.

Wells must be dug, sanitation provided, and health facilities established -- not an easy task in rugged desert conditions. Boosting morale remains a serious problem. To help refugees supplement their meager incomes, CARE has launched projects to encourage women to make traditional crafts for export.

The cost of providing food, shelter, clothing, and medicine adds up to roughly 50 cents a day per person -- at least $600,000 a day for the present refugee population. And relief officials are concerned that international public interest has begun to wain.

"It's almost pathetic that we have to point out to Americans that there are refugees in Pakistan despite all the media coverage," says Janik Radon of the US Afghan Relief Committee in New York. "Then they are shocked by the numbers."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.