Fri, 23 Feb 2001

Human tragedy deepens in Afghanistan

By Jack Redden

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters): A visitor passed an Afghan currency note worth a few cents toward the outstretched hand of a destitute woman standing by his truck in this ancient caravan city.

The gesture triggered an enveloping rush by men, women and children desperate for anything that might buy a piece of bread.

After 21 years of war and two years of drought, the most alarming fact is not the poverty gripping Afghanistan, or the half million people who have been forced from their homes in a search for survival. It is the expectation that conditions are almost certain to get worse in the next few months.

"Most Afghans have lost everything. To survive in the last couple of years they have had to sell all they had. They are at rock-bottom," said Erick de Mul, the Islamabad-based coordinator of all United Nations humanitarian programmes in Afghanistan.

The problems are foreshadowed by the enormous hardships aid workers already see. In Herat alone there are 80,000 Afghans in emergency camps who have trekked from villages across the barren mountains since the failure of their last crop.

Fresh graves -- piles of stones usually the size of a child -- continue to spread around the six dusty UN camps for the IDPs, the internally displaced people who are not official refugees because they did not cross an international border.

The exact number who those died in bitter minus 25 Celsius temperatures at the end of January will never be known, but UN officials say a conservative estimate was 150 in three nights, 90 percent of them children.

But even on normal nights, thousands of families at Herat face sub-zero temperatures in shelters with mud floors, light provided by kerosene in an old bottle and heating from a few glowing lumps of charcoal.

To the north, 10,000 Afghans fleeing the war between the ruling Taleban and their last major opponents, are trapped on islands in the Amu Darya river, the Oxus of classical history, blocked by Tajikistan from crossing to the safe side.

In Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan to the east, 170,000 Afghans have flooded in since last September -- the greatest influx since the early 1990s and proof that a refugee problem the world had forgotten is growing instead of disappearing.

Pakistan, complaining it already hosts two million Afghans with little outside help, wants to block fresh arrivals. To make its point, it has refused to allow a new refugee camp.

In a field in Jallouzai, just inside Pakistan, 80,000 Afghans are jammed in without proper shelter, sanitation or water.

UN officials are torn between the need for emergency aid and the fear of drawing more people to a spot where services can never be provided.

"The fact they are exposing themselves and their children to these conditions shows they are desperate," said Yusuf Hassan of the UN refugee agency, standing amid tents of plastic sheets. "Coming to Pakistan they decided was the best chance to survive."

As grim as these conditions are, the United Nations sees the current crises as harbingers of worse to come. Officials fear even the resilience of Afghans, among the toughest people on earth, is reaching breaking point.

"It is very hard when you see a man of 50 or 60 standing in front of you crying," said Naeem Durrani, a UN official helping new refugees in Pakistan. "I had never seen Afghans crying. They are a very proud people."

Those who fled villages have left behind people who may be even worse off. In a land that bakes in summer and freezes in winter, the most destitute may be blocked behind snow-covered passes.

The number arriving in Afghanistan's third biggest city of Herat tapered off from 600 people a day as snow fell, but when spring approaches and remaining food is exhausted, a new flood of refugees is expected.

Even if rain returns to normal after the worst drought in 30 years, which will not be clear for another two months, the coming harvest is in doubt. Many did not plant last fall, driven by hunger to eat their seed.

The same problem faces the next crop, with the UN in a dilemma: give seed to famished people in the countryside and they will probably eat it; distribute seed in refugee camps as an incentive to go home to plant and it could instead attract more refugees.

In any case, many fled not just drought but war -- the vast majority of those reaching Pakistan came from areas where the Taleban and their opponents stepped up fighting last September.

The same mountain passes that will soon be open to refugees will be conduits for fresh arms and munitions as another summer of violence gains pace.

That seemingly endless warfare -- a decade of driving out Soviet invasion forces followed by a decade of civil war -- has taken its toll on more than the country's people and infrastructure.

The world has become exhausted with UN requests for aid to Afghanistan. In most years, at best half the request arrives; so far this year it has received only US$14 million of $229 million sought.

That has increased the fears of aid officials, who not only want more for the current crisis but foresee the need for years of help even in the unlikely event both war and drought disappear.

Farmers will take years to replace livestock and orchards lost in the past year. To reach safety in the cities, families sold even the poles holding up the mud roofs of their houses.

The countryside, and parts of the cities, are littered with landmines and maiming explosions remain a daily occurrence. Outside of roads, which can be used by armies, there has been almost no infrastructure building since Soviet troops invaded in 1979.

"In the best-case scenario," said Hans-Christian Poulsen, the Dane coordinating UN activities in Herat, "it will take a long time for the UN to get out of here."