'Everyone who can is leaving Kabul'
By Christina Lamb,Jalozai Camp in Pakistan
The Daily Telegraph
IN a land with no hope, people with empty eyes sit under canvas sheets on a dusty plain and wonder if anyone anywhere cares about them.
Refugee crisis: Afghan cities such as Kandahar have been turned into ghost towns
The largest Afghani refugee camp in Pakistan, Jalozai is a heartrending place where the proudest people on earth, who not so long ago walked like kings, beg for scraps and search the stars at night desperate for clues as to whether they will ever return to their homeland.
The worst thing is the quiet. I was last here in 1988 and it was bustling with noisy activity, bearded Pashtuns with flowing turbans sitting round over sugary tea, looking toward the Cherat mountains beyond which lay their land, and endlessly debating the latest military developments inside Afghanistan.
Today no one offers tea - there is none to offer - and the only sound from the endless rows of makeshift tents that house an estimated 400,000 people is the crying of babies. Not a proper crying, but the pathetic mewling of the undernourished and matchstick-limbed who may not last the night.
There are thousands of children, but they sit seriously, the girls making wool, the boys simply staring. Children are usually adaptable, fashioning toy cars from sticks and wire, but in an entire morning wandering round the camp, the only toy I saw was one home-made kite which refused to fly.
"What do they have to be happy about?" asked an old man with a gold embroidered cap, long white beard and stick. This is a nation that has forgotten how to play. When a donkey cart rattled through laden with green apples, the children watched longingly.
Crying softly under one-sheet tent is a woman in a black veil, crouched on the dusty ground clutching a kettle. Noor Hassan is one of the most recent arrivals, reaching the camp from Kabul on Friday after walking for a day and a night, then travelling four days by truck with her two daughters.
Having sold everything she owned to be able to afford the 350,000 Afghanis (£3) to ride on a crowded truck, a kettle is all she owns, apart from a Coca-Cola bottle containing a mix of salt and red chilli to put on food. "Everyone who can is leaving Kabul," she said. "It is a place of fear. We know the Americans will destroy Afghanistan. I saw thousands of people on the road."
As President Bush and his team debate options such as cruise missiles, long-range jets or even airborne troops, Afghanistan is emptying. Cities such as Kandahar have been turned into ghost towns, with even Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, reportedly heading for the countryside.
Although US officials seem to have taken on board warnings from Russia, Britain and Pakistan about the incredible difficulty of the Afghani terrain and the fighting nature of its people, some kind of retaliatory action is widely expected in the coming week, particularly after the Taliban again vowed not to hand over Osama bin Laden.
With the country already facing famine after the third year of drought and crop failure, aid agencies are predicting more than one million refugees will flood in to Pakistan, bringing an overwhelming humanitarian crisis alongside any military action.
"We are facing a humanitarian catastrophe," said Yusuf Hassan, a senior official for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is on emergency footing, bringing in staff, supplies and tents.
"The situation is far worse than it has ever been. The Afghanis are a resilient lot, but their infrastructure is in ruins, they have no proper government, no economic activity, their crops have failed for the third time, the rivers and dams have dried and even the famous orchards withered. Then add the events of last week"
For a people who have already suffered more than 20 years of war, the situation is depressingly familiar. Noor Hassan's story is typical. As a young bride, she watched with terror as the tanks and soldiers of the Red Army rolled into Kabul. Shortly afterwards, her husband, a butcher, went to fight with the resistance, as did her brothers and uncles.
"They were terrible days. Aircraft used to come and bomb our houses, destroying our homes. For years, I heard nothing about my husband. Then one day his commander came and told me he was a shaheed [martyr]. I lost five brothers and uncles."
After the Russians left in 1989, much of Kabul was destroyed by fighting between mujahideen factions and Noor fled to her father's farm outside the city. When the Taliban took over in 1996, she thought life might improve:
"At least it seemed there was order. But then they started banning everything, forcing us to wear burkhas and stay at home. For young people like my daughters, there have never been good times. Now the Americans are going to bomb us."
Crying again, she added: "Everyone wants to destroy our country and I don't know why. The Americans' fight should not be with us, but with Osama bin Laden who they sent and who is now our guest. He is not an Afghani. What will they gain by attacking us? There is nothing left in my country but ashes."
Yet Noor could be considered one of the lucky ones. Both Pakistan and Iran have closed their borders with Afghanistan and most refugees are milling around inside, much to the horror of aid agencies, which have appealed to Pakistan to let them in.
At border posts such as Torkham and Chaman, barbed wire has been erected and the Pakistani military beats back anyone who tries to get through. Some slip through the mountain passes and UNHCR estimates that 16,000 crossed into Baluchistan last week and another 100,000 are waiting at the border.
But the Pakistanis are rounding up any they catch. On Friday, 500 were picked up from the streets of Peshawar and taken to a football stadium, where they were told that they would be taken to a camp. Instead, they were deported.
The refugee camps have been closed, with police checkpoints set up. Because journalists are no longer allowed to enter, we had to get special permission from military authorities for our visit. Most of the newer arrivals in Jalozai say they left Afghanistan three months ago because they had no food.
About a quarter of the population inside Afghanistan - 3.8 million people - have been receiving food from the World Food Programme (WFP) and aid agencies, but this will soon dry up, because all foreigners have had to leave the country and supplies can no longer get in to local staff.
Khaled Mansour, a spokesman for the WFP, described the situation as, "prefamine conditions, by which we don't mean we have walking skeletons but we have people who are eating grass, people eating animal fodder, people who have sold everything they had."
Many of these people are thought to be trying to flee. Yet inside Pakistan, life is little better. At Jalozai, Asghar, a former mujahid who lost an eye in a Russian mortar attack and is almost blind in the other, sits outside his tent in the baking sun.
Inside, his wife cradles the limp body of their 10-month-old son, who seems to be unconscious. Asghar said: "We cannot find any medical care and we have not eaten for two days. We didn't expect this."
In the next tent, Bibi Zar Safiullah thrusts her daughter, Sadia, at me. Three years old, the child is so malnourished that she looks more like a six-month-old baby. Two other daughters have died. "For the past two months, we have just received two bags of flour. I am watching my children die like flies. What shall I do?" she begs.
With resources at camps such as Jalozai so overstretched, this is clearly shaping up to be the world's next and perhaps biggest refugee crisis. But the idea that any of these people would end up trying to get to Europe seems preposterous.
Asghar asks me if England is near Pakistan. When I ask him if he would like to go there, he looks confused. "I don't even have money for an apple," he said. Around the camp, apart from a few clay ovens in which roti bread is being cooked, no one seems to have any food. The lips of the people I interview are cracked and dry and a grey layer of dust covers everything.
This is a place of no trees. A few of the men get day work as labourers, while the girls make skeins of wool to sell to a carpetmaker for 30 rupees (32p) a kilo - about four days' work. Most just go hungry. There is little optimism that the American campaign will be shortlived and help pave the way for a new government in Kabul.
"We're so tired of fighting outsiders' wars," said Lal Mohammad, from the Yusuf valley near Mazar-i-Sharif, where looting has been reported for the past few days as law and order breaks down.
"They burnt our beautiful valley, killed my four brothers. We are a hospitable people - we have a saying that we give even our eyes to guests. But every time they sit at our table, they treat us like a goat that everyone wants to tear to pieces."
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