Afghanistan refugees fight to stay in camps

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The Independent Online

The mud huts are clustered together around narrow alleys potholed and covered in dirt. Families of 10, crammed into single rooms, are dependent on brackish water from wells that have effluent seeping in. There are no medical facilities. This is Safean, eight miles to the south of Lashkar Gar, and home to 25,000 Afghans displaced by war.

Two miles to the west lies Kaliakona, with another 5,000 of the dispossessed living in a similar state of wretchedness. Five miles to the north of the city there are 20,000 men, women and children huddled at another desolate spot, Mukhtar. Here, there are lines of tents, made out of tattered clothing along with the makeshift huts, and the same lack of basic amenities.

Helmand, the focus of British military and development operations in Afghanistan, is facing a severe humanitarian crisis with the arrival of a stream of people seeking refuge from fighting elsewhere in the country.

But despite the growing international presence in Lashkar Gar with the UK and other Western countries pledging millions of dollars in development programmes, these internally displaced have received little help.

The hands of the international community are tied. The Helmand administration insists that the refugees are squatting illegally and must return to their home villages. Any aid, it is held, will make the settlements more permanent and encourage others to join the migration.

The pressure to move the camps has increased after the refugees tapped into the already straining power lines and the water supply, and created shortages in Lashkar Gar, a place where a mini revival in happening thanks to a flurry of reconstruction and development.

Meanwhile, the official neglect has created a pool of disaffected young men ready for recruitment by the Taliban. Nato troops report increasing prevalence of mines and explosive devices on the routes to the camps and local police stations come under nightly attack.

The Governor of Helmand, Assadullah Wafa, says his administration is following the guidelines set by the Karzai government. In Kabul, Shojauddin Shoja, senior adviser to the Ministry of Refugees, Returnees and IDPs (internally displaced people) said: "I think there is a drastic improvement in the overall situation in the country which allows all IDPs to return to their respective original provinces.

"People should understand that they cannot receive relief forever. They should start building their respective lives and should be able to assume their own responsibilities."

For many at the makeshift settlements, this just raises hollow laughter. Some have had their homes destroyed, others are nomads who have nowhere to go back to, and there are also large numbers who had been there for several years and consider the camps, however deprived, as their homes.

Standing outside the one room where he lives with his wife and six children, Haji Abdul said: "There is no one here to help us, we are poor people and we have no influence, so why should officials worry about us? Our life here is a struggle every day and I worry whether I would be able to feed the young ones."

The family arrived two years ago from a village near Garamsir, the scene of heavy fighting between British forces and the Taliban in which two cousins were killed. Haji Abdul had earned around two dollars a day as a jobbing labourer, barely enough, he says, to feed his family. His seven-month-old baby boy and three-year-old girl have been suffering from stomach disorder, and extra money had to be found for medicine.

"We had to leave after the deaths of my cousin-brothers. I don't know which side killed them, there was a lot of firing. I have to walk two, three miles to get work, but I do not get it every day. If I am earning, we have food. If I am not, then my wife and I go hungry to feed the children. They have been sick, it is the bad water, lots of people have been sick around here.

"They say that we must go home. But where are we going to go? Our house in Garamsir was destroyed in the fighting, there is nothing left."

Haji Abdul's neighbour at the village of Loidarwaha, 22-year-old Naqibullah Ali, is also at Safean with his parents and four brothers and sisters. "We had months of fighting there. The Taliban would use the village to fire rockets and then the foreigners' planes would bomb us. Karzai's government is supposed to help us, but where is that help? We are not going to go from here, they will have to move us by force. They will have to kill us, because if we go home we will probably get killed anyway."

Relief operations by the UN and aid agencies ended at Mukhtar camp more than a year ago. Some families have left since, leading to government claims that the policy is working, but a vast number have stayed behind.

Mirabai, a widow in her late 40s, with four children, recalled her descent into despair. "When we had the charity there was just enough food and also fuel to get by. Now the only thing I can do is get my children and go into Lashkar Gar and beg. I would like to send them to school, but there are no schools here."

Others say that return to their original homes would be a death sentence. Shah Alaam, who had arrived at Mukhtar from Jozjan province in the north, said: "That is Uzbek land and I am a Pashtun. If I go back they will say that I collaborated with the Taliban and kill me. Believe me, that has happened to lots of Pashtuns. But in the meantime you have real Taliban coming in here and getting people to join them. They offer families money and food – the things the government has stopped giving us."

Additional reporting byAmir Nasruddin Ali