In the bleak deserts of northern Afghanistan, the United Nations is vying with rival mujahideen leaders and former Communists to help the world's newest flood of refugees. At least 40,000 people have fled from the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan across the Amu River into Afghanistan to escape fighting.

Telling tales of atrocities, thousands of families have braved the icy waters of the Amu and now huddle in tent cities and underground bunkers against the bitter winds.

"The Communists looted our home; they even took our children's clothes. They burned our houses and stole our car," says Huse Gul, who fled with her five children to a camp in Tashqurgan, Afghanistan.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is setting up camps for the refugees. The main one for an initial 10,000 people is being literally dug out of the gravel some 37 miles south of the border.

Rival Afghan mujahideen leaders in the district of Kunduz have been sending trucks to collect refugees from the border, competing with the helicopters of the northern Afghanistan's strongman, Gen. Rashid Dostum. The commanders see the refugees as a way of bringing UN assistance into their zones of control, says local UNHCR chief Philippe Labreveux.

They also regard the refugees as a pool of manpower to launch a "holy war" into Tajikistan, UNHCR officials say.

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