Human tragedy in the making
Rashed Rahman - The News: Jang (Opinion) 11/22
Afghanistan is a country that has been singularly cursed with afflictions over the past two decades. The communist takeover in 1978 and the subsequent Soviet intervention to prevent the consequences of an internal factional struggle wiping out the communist hold on power altogether, saw the beginnings of the Afghan masses' miseries pile up. It is another matter that Soviet intervention put paid to the prospects, tenuous as they always were, of the Afghan revolution succeeding. Support for the religious fundamentalist groups comprising the anti-communist resistance came from Pakistan, some Arab countries, and the West.
The withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 saw the West's interest and support decline. One form of the fallout of Western distancing was the Afghan refugees who had taken shelter in their millions on Pakistani soil. Until the emergence of the Taliban in 1994, international agencies had assisted in looking after these unfortunate souls uprooted from their homes. The antediluvian character of the Taliban regime, which by now controls some 90% of Afghan territory, has tended to discourage these international aid agencies from continuing to engage in the same manner and at the same level as previously.
The reduced aid for the refugee population inside Pakistan has shifted a considerable portion of the burden onto the Pakistani state's shoulders. The UN and other aid agencies have had their fair share of run-ins inside Afghanistan with the Taliban. The result is a reduced presence of aid personnel inside Afghanistan, and reduced aid for refugee rehabilitation and care in Pakistan. Various motives are being ascribed to the decision by the military government to close the Pakistan-Afghan border on November 11. One obvious benefit would be to restrict the inflow of thousands of more Afghan refugees fleeing fighting and economic hardship. The other could be to put pressure on the international aid agencies and their western funders to increase the flow of resources and lighten the Pakistan government's burden.
The alternative would be for the UN and other agencies to set up refugee centres on Afghan territory, close to the Pakistan border and at a reasonable distance from any war zone. Both proposals imply a degree of re-engagement with the Taliban regime. That may well be part of Islamabad's purpose. After all, the Taliban regime is only recognised by three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Of these, the Saudis and their Gulf allies have distanced themselves practically from Kabul since the Osama bin Laden issue emerged. That leaves Pakistan holding the Taliban baby all by itself. The Taliban's approach seems to be to allow the outflow of people who they cannot feed or look after.
The basic reason for this is the advanced degree of destruction of the Afghan economy because of more than two decades of war. To this could be added the current offensive the Taliban have launched in the northeast of the country and in Badakhshan province. These offensives are meant to winkle out the Northern Alliance's hold on the remaining territory under its control before the winter makes operations difficult. The prolonged drought that has struck Afghanistan and other countries of the region since this summer has destroyed the fragile economic base that allowed vast numbers of impoverished Afghans to survive at a subsistence level inside their own country. The renewed fighting in the northeast and the east has put further pressure on people in these areas to find refuge and safety across the Pak-Afghan border, neighbouring countries like Tajikistan having sealed their own borders with Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the human dimensions of this unfolding tragedy have escaped due notice.
The military government's decision to close the border was prompted by an increased flow of refugees from across the Durand Line. If there are strategic, political and economic advantages being sought, these can only be obtained at the cost of the poor refugees. Pakistan is a signatory to the international conventions on refugee rights. Refusing entry to new refugees is in violation of those conventions and covenants. Secondly, the decision to allow in only returning refugees who hold valid travel documents and/or identity cards issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or NGOs involved in refugee relief work, implies the exclusion of refugees from the zones of renewed fighting because of the current Taliban offensive.
Those from the northeast are easily recognisable because they are largely Persian speakers. Distinguishing them from those who are returning refugees already living in Pakistan has led to scuffles, a human crush, beatings by Pakistani border guards on our side and Taliban cadres on the Afghan side. One witnessed these events on Friday, November 17, as a member of a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan fact-finding mission to Torkham. The inflow of refugees at Torkham is estimated to be between 2,000-2,500 every day.
They include people of all ages, health and ethnic groups (Pushtun and non-Pushtun). When the gate at Torkham is closed (as it was soon after our arrival), the human crush on the other side becomes rapidly unmanageable in the face of the anxiety of families, the old and the weary, to get across to safety as soon as possible. The Pakistani border guards jealously and forcefully defend the small opening still available to allow valid document holders that show they are returnees and not fresh refugees, to come across.
Of the daily total, this is hardly a trickle. Interestingly, this policy has not led to a build-up of refugees camping on the bare rocky plain of Torkham on the Afghan side, which would be a logical consequence of the steady daily flow. The reason is not simply that the Taliban have set up three pickets between Jalalabad and Torkham, where intending refugees are being stopped. If the daily arrival rate at Torkham is taken account of, where do the refused intending refugees go? The mystery is resolved if one believes the whispered explanation at the border that the remaining refugees are let through after sunset, when the border is officially closed for the night, on payment of a bribe, the rate being between 400-500 Afghanis per person.
So much for the military government's attempts to stop the inflow. Only those remain apprehensively at the border post who do not have the required sum. Their repeated attempts to break through the barriers are repelled by gun-toting, baton-wielding Taliban cadres, who beat anyone not obeying their commands to move back, mercilessly and indiscriminately. No distinction appears to be made between the old, the crippled, women, and even children. The attempt (unsuccessful, as noted above) to hold the tide of refugees back has disrupted the normal flow of traffic and goods across the Pak-Afghan border at Torkham. Besides NGOs' personnel trapped on either side, Pakistani Pushtuns and Afghans who have relatives and business on this or the other side (a normal occurrence), stand disconsolate near the gate, waiting endlessly for the flow to restart.
The normal daily customs revenue from goods traded across the border at Torkham of between Rs8-15 lakh is down by Rs3-4 lakh a day because of the goods trucks lined up on either side. But the human tragedy unfolding at Torkham is what governments, the UN and other agencies must focus on. Four intending refugees died on the Chitral border, trapped in snow while trying to get across. Others who attempt the far more hazardous passage along the porous 1,600-kilometre border rather than the posts at Torkham and Chaman in Balochistan, may well die. It is incumbent on our government to allow these poor, suffering people in without discrimination as to whether they belong to one ethnic group or the other, one region or the other. The pathetic excuse that they may include saboteurs sent by the Northern Alliance does not wash since these people will be under the (hopefully) watchful eyes of the authorities.
Allowing refugees in may have become inconvenient now and no longer serve the same purpose it did when the Soviets and communists were dominant in Afghanistan. But humanitarian principles should not be subject to mere strategic convenience. Those allowed in have to be looked after by the UN and other international agencies, notwithstanding their reservations about the Taliban regime and Afghan relief fatigue. On Pakistani soil, these considerations should no longer apply. The cost and consequences of the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, with the help of their respective external backers, have fallen on the poor Afghan masses. If this unfolding human tragedy is to be prevented from turning into a humanitarian disaster, the power struggle inside Afghanistan cannot be allowed to override the imperative to look after these long-suffering victims.
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