IT is imperative that the world not forget the 5 million Afghan refugees who have sought safety outside their nation's borders. These ``forgotten'' victims of the long war in Afghanistan account for a full one-third of the Afghan population; they are the largest refugee group anywhere in the world. Three million have sought refuge inside the western border of Pakistan. Most of the rest fled east into Iran. Though technically not refugees, another 1 million Afghans have moved ``voluntarily'' within Afghanistan. Many escaped to cities after Soviet and Afghan government troops burned their crops and bombed their villages in an effort to cut rural support for resistance forces.
The Afghan war has dragged on for 7 years. Endless political problems remain. Though most Afghan refugees talk longingly of returning home the minute the ``godless communists'' withdraw, some Pakistanis now quietly talk of the refugee situation as a ``permanent emergency.'' In many cases mud huts, cooler in summer and warmer in winter, have replaced makeshift tents. Secondary schools now complement once-temporary elementary schools. Under a World Bank program, some refugees have jobs rebuilding roads and planting trees in areas damaged by their camps. For Pakistan, where the job situation remains tight, refugee policy is a politically sensitive issue; Islamabad estimates refugee costs at $1 million a day. About half the expense is met by donations through the UN and voluntary agencies. Roughly one-third of that outside help comes from a fiscally hard pressed Washington.
By Palestinian standards, the Afghans are still new refugees. It was 39 years ago that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled the new state of Israel to take up temporary residence in camps inside Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and other neighboring areas. Many who are now adults were born in such camps; they grew up thinking that one day they would return ``home'' again. Many still live in that state of mental limbo.
For refugees from wars that go unsettled for years, the wait to return home can seem interminable. Surely, such a situation calls out for more of the world's compassion - and attention.
As the wait continues for the Afghans, military pressure must be kept on the Soviets until Moscow removes its troops. The United States, China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt should keep their aid to the mujahideen flowing and raise the settlement issue frequently in global forums. This terrible war needs to be ended.
Last, the many peoples and nations now supporting the Afghan refugees in their makeshift homes away from home should keep their collective hand extended.