Confusion on frontier as thousands remain stranded in no man's land

War on terrorism: Relief
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The Independent Online

The United Nations appeared to have lost control of the refugee crisis in Pakistan when thousands more people fled the fighting in southern Afghanistan.

Several were taken to hospital after Pakistani border guards again fired in the air above panicked and angry refugees who were throwing stones over the border crossing at Chaman, between Pakistan and the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the Pakistani authorities were deporting Afghans who had already made it across.

But despite weeks of preparation for such an influx, UN officials appeared to have no clear idea of how many had entered Pakistan or were still stranded in "no man's land", just inside Afghanistan. To complete the picture of confusion, they said that UNHCR employees, who monitored the situation at the border, had made no report and had apparently gone missing.

"The situation at Chaman is increasingly tense," said Fatoumata Kaba, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in the nearby Pakistani city of Quetta. "The UNHCR has been talking to the government because we are extremely concerned about these people behind the barbed wire, who have no food, no sanitation, and no medicine."

For the second day, border guards fired into the air above a crowd of angry refugees. Whether the people taken to hospital were hit by bullets or were crushed in the crowd was not known.

Refugees who did make it through described a wretched situation on the Afghan side of the border. Those who can pay 1,800 rupees (£20) per head to professional smugglers sneak in by walking for an hour across the mountains. Those without money make the difficult journey unaccompanied, risking robbery by bandits who patrol the paths, or else simply wait on the far side in the hope that the border will be opened.

Mohammed Daoudood, who was smuggled across over the weekend, reported a six-mile line of cars backed up towards Chaman on the Afghan side with many frightened people who had travelled on foot waiting at the side of the road. "There are many poor families, with no food and no shelter," said Mr Daoudood. "In Kandahar and Kabul, it's complete anarchy. The bombs are falling, there are bandits entering people's houses in the night."

The position is made all the more complicated by the behaviour of the Pakistani frontier authorities who are opening and closing the border seemingly at random. After 15,000 refugees gathered at the crossing on Sunday, it was unexpectedly opened late in the day.

Another Afghan whose family crossed late on Sunday said: "I saw a disabled woman being pushed in a wheelbarrow, and I saw amputees coming across on sticks and crutches. All day they stopped them coming through but once they opened it they couldn't control them. The barbed wire was broken down and trucks and tractors were just driving over it."

But more alarming than the plight of the refugees was the helpless bafflement of the UNHCR. The World Food Programme, Unicef and non- governmental organisations including Oxfam have trucked supplies to Chaman expecting the exodus. But having spent weeks preparing for up to 1.5 million refugees, the UNHCR in Quetta is unable to confirm the most basic facts about a few tens of thousands of them.

It appears that 10,000 have crossed in the past two days, but where they are now nobody knows. Guards at Chaman said they had sent refugees back into Afghanistan, and Ms Kaba cited reports that families had been deported at the Shalabagh crossing 10 miles away.

The confusion is caused by the political dilemma of the Islamabad government. On one hand, Pakistan has received as many as three million refugees during two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, and is loath to accept a further burden, especially at a time of domestic political unrest about the bombing. "We are not in a position to take care of massive flows of Afghan refugees," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. "Pakistan has not opened its border."

On the other hand, General Pervez Musharraf does not want to be blamed for a humanitarian disaster. Pakistan's solution has been to open the border on an ad-hoc basis, when tension becomes dangerous, but to avoid advertising the fact to discourage new arrivals.