Children Lose Out in Afghan War


ON many days, 12-year-old Safiullah and his brother, Dilagha, 7, begin scavenging after school. The two Afghans wander the roads and fields near this massive refugee camp in the desert, 35 miles north of Peshawar. They look for twigs, scraps of paper - anything to fuel a fire and help their adopted family survive.

Four years ago their father, a mujahideen resistance fighter, was killed in battle. Their mother died in a bombing. The orphans were taken in by their uncle, aunt, and three cousins and brought to Pakistan, where the family scrapes out a living.

``We try to collect wood and leaves to help our uncle,'' said Safiullah, a thin boy dressed in a ragged clothes. ``Sometimes the Pakistanis don't allow us to leave the camp and gather wood. But on other days, we're lucky and can sneak out.''

For thousands of Afghan orphans, life is a harsh struggle. Islam-based Afghan society considers a child to be an orphan when his father dies. The child and the mother are usually taken in by relatives. Sometimes an uncle accepts the widow as a second wife. If a child has no family members, friends or others from his village will adopt him.

However, the decade-long civil war has overburdened the traditional system with orphans and widows, Afghan and Western observers say. More than 1 million have been killed in the conflict and, by some private estimates, 1 million children have been left fatherless.

Often, a widow has no one to turn to and cannot provide for the family herself due to the custom of confining women to the home. The burden then falls to the children to obtain what they need.

For children without parents, an adopted family often can give no more than basic subsistence. Relief workers say it is increasingly difficult to register children as refugees, which would entitle them to assistance. As a result, a family's sustenance is stretched thin.

Even without the war, growing up as an Afghan has always been perilous. For years, Afghanistan has topped the list of 131 countries ranked by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in incidence of child mortality.

The child mortality threat has eased since 1960. Still, 198 of every 1,000 Afghan children die before age one, and 329 die between the ages of one and five, according to 1989 figures from an internal UNICEF report. In the United States, only 10 children in 1,000 die before the age of one, and 13 between the ages of one and five.

Afghan children also lead the world in suffering from a lack of food, drinking water, schooling, immunization, and a high mortality rate among mothers.

UNICEF says 6.8 million Afghans are under the age of 16, about half the population.

The growing number of orphans is creating dilemmas in a society which has no institutionalized approach to caring for them. Proud of their traditions, Afghans strongly oppose adoption of Afghan orphans overseas, even in other Muslim countries.

Often, though, the traditional system has failed to respond to the realities of war.

Sashai, a young woman with four children, fled Afghanistan last summer. She had been turned out by her husband's relatives who, four years ago, had adopted the family when her husband died.

Bibi Hawa, an elderly woman with long braids and a deeply lined face, brought her eight grandchildren to Pakistan eight years ago when her son was killed in the fighting. One of his two wives also died. When the other wife remarried, the grandmother was forced to take the children.

``She has remarried an older man who already has children and says he can't take care of her children too,'' says the elderly woman, who relies on handouts from relief agencies. ``Only Allah will take care of these children now.''

Some Islamic organizations have taken on the task of rebuilding Afghan families. In Peshawar, the Saudi-supported Islamic Relief Agency sends teams into nearby refugee camps to search for relatives of children and widows. The agency runs the area's only orphanage, where 1,000 children and widows live and receive an Islamic education.

``There are many children who are completely alone,'' says Sayed Ishaq Gailani, a former mujahideen commander. ``There are many others who stay with relatives who are not prepared to give them good support and an education. The children remain illiterate.''

Mr. Gailani heads the Afghan Relief Foundation, which plans to establish a network of orphanages in Peshawar. Two or three widows can live there with their children and also care for three or four other unwanted youngsters. The children would be educated in the homes. If the plan works, he hopes to extend it to Afghanistan.

``They were children when the war started, and they lost their parents. They never got a chance for an education and to enjoy life inside Afghanistan,'' he continues. ``Now when they go back, there will be no time to get schooling. This problem will go on. Someone must take responsibility.''

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