First rains for four years bring new misery to camps

War on Terrorism: Refugees
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The Independent Online

When we found Qalan Issah and her four children, they were sitting helplessly in the mud and shivering in the icy wind. The other refugees crowded round, clamouring for help but Ms Issah said nothing. The flood had just swept away her tent, the only shelter for her and her children. They would have to spend the freezing night in the open and might not survive.

The flood arrived suddenly and unexpectedly yesterday. After four years of drought that has starved the people of Afghanistan, the longed-for rain came at last to this corner of the country and brought disaster in its wake. A torrent of water burst through the wretched camp at Lalagurza, full of refugees who had fled from the Taliban. The water swept away tents and shelters.

Frantically, the refugees dug channels in the mud to steer the water away from their homes. They screamed at each other: "Dig here." Others shouted to bring more straw to shore up the sides of the ditches. There were not enough shovels to go around, so some tried to kick the mud out of the channels with their feet. Others stood by helplessly. None of them could remember a day of rain quite like this.

Saeedharun was sitting on the last patch of dry ground left under her tent – and the water was still rising. In her arms, she cradled Maliya, her one-year-old daughter. The child was crying with the cold. They arrived 10 days ago, thinking they had reached safety. "The Taliban killed my father in his own house," Saeedharun said. "We were sitting together and they just came; they didn't say anything. They just shot my father with a machine-gun. You can't say anything to a soldier."

Other refugees said either Saeedharun's father was a Northern Alliance fighter or the Taliban mistakenly thought he was. Her husband died a while ago of natural causes.

Now, all that is left of her family was huddled here under the thin little blanket that served as a tent, utterly inadequate before the rain fell, now sopping wet as well.

As she spoke, Saeedharun kept her face hidden behind her veil, carefully protecting herself even in this hell of mud and filthy water. The water brought with it a smell of excrement, probably washed out of the hopeless latrines – and almost certainly disease.

All this was happening 15 minutes' drive from the town of Khojabahuddin, a regional base for the Northern Alliance, full of journalists and international aid workers. Yet only a handful of reporters has visited the camp, and the first aid workers did not arrive until nightfall. Aid is supposed to be pouring in to Afghanistan but in Lalagurza they did not even have enough shovels to dig channels and save their tents.

The refugees say they built the camp themselves – it seems clear the feeble shelters, made of rush mats twisted round a pole, or of blankets, were not the result of international aid.

The people said they had not even received any of the yellow food parcels dropped by the Americans, though you see plenty of them in Khojabahuddin. In another refugee camp, a woman could be seen sewing the empty yellow packets together to make a tent.

"You need a car to get the food packets," said an old man in a turban whose son is a soldier in the Northern Alliance. "They drop them in the desert. How can we go out there to get them?" He grew angry. "You have to tell the world to help us," he said. "You have to give us tents. You have to give us food. I know you are giving money, but you are giving it to the commanders and they keep it. They don't give any of it to us."

Beside him, Ajibazar, a blind man who said he was 80, started crying. "The Taliban killed my son. They took my whole life away," he said repeatedly.

So much wretchedness and misery. There is not enough money to put people into decent tents. Yet 10 miles away on the front line, the most sophisticated bombs in the world are falling.

Gawak Gul was huddled with her four young grandchildren under a thin sheet of canvas stretched over a piece of wood. You could hear the children's teeth chattering. This was higher ground, safe from the flood, but it was still exposed to the merciless wind.

The Guls arrived here at the same time as Saeedharun. The children, Ms Gul said, had been there when the Taliban shot their father. Six-year-old Behawa saw her father killed. She mustered a smile for us strangers. "He wasn't with the Northern Alliance," Ms Gul kept saying. The children's mother died a year ago. Ms Gul was all they had left. She looked as if she might not survive the night. "The situation is so bad in Afghanistan," she said, and broke down in tears. "No more questions."

Last night, it was still raining.