Heat, dust and hunger in a sanctuary from hell

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Nasir Ahmad looked stunned as he squatted in the dust yesterday at Jalozai refugee camp, with only a piece of sacking to keep off the 35C heat. But perhaps he was just hungry – he confessed later that since he and his family fled Kabul for Pakistan three days earlier, they had eaten only once.

Nasir is only 19, but he has been head of the family since his father, Maruf, was killed six years ago. Maruf used to run a vegetable stall in a market in Kabul, and his older son would help him outside school hours. "I was there when a rocket hit the market, and a piece of metal killed him," said Nasir. "I put his body in our pushcart and took it home. I said to our mother, Madina, 'My father is dead'." Next to him, Madina, who says she is about 45 but looks much older, simply nods in confirmation.

That was the end of Nasir's meagre education. He had to take the pushcart and seek work in the market to keep his mother, his 10-year-old brother Fahim, who sat wordlessly beside him, and his sister, Marufa, who at six was too young to understand the disaster that had befallen them, and had gone off to play with the other children in the camp.

The year after Maruf was killed, the Taliban swept into Kabul and drove out the warring mujahedin factions which had reduced the Afghan capital to a ruin. Nasir said: "Life did not change much for us. We are ordinary people." He made just enough in the market for the family to manage, but the family did not have enough money for a television or any of the other amusements the Taliban was so keen to stamp out, such as cinemas and music tapes.

"If you shaved you could be put in prison for a week, but I was too young to have much of a beard," Nasir said wryly. Showing a hint of rebellion, he has scraped his chin clean since they arrived in Pakistan.

Why did they flee? "We heard the Americans would attack, and we were afraid. So many other people had gone that there was no work in the market, and I was afraid that the Taliban would take me and make me fight. I have no father to protect me, and I have to care for the family. All we could do was leave ourselves."

They spent all their savings to take a bus to the border at Torkham, with the driver bribing or talking his way through the Taliban checkpoints on the road. But at Torkham they found the border was closed - Pakistan, fearing a flood of fugitives like the Ahmad family, is refusing to let anyone through without the proper documents. All they could do was sell everything they had, including their cooking utensils, to raise the 2,500 Pakistani rupees (about £25) needed to pay a guide to take them through the mountains.

Nasir was reluctant to talk about their trek: the experience was too recent and painful. "My mother finds it difficult to walk, but we had no money to hire a donkey for her," he said. "We just had to help her as much as possible. It took the whole night. Then we had to try and get here."

"Here" is a scene so hellish that the Pakistani authorities would not let Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, see it. On a barren expanse which is dust in the dry season, flooded when it is wet, 59,000 Afghan refugees live under sacking, plastic, or tents if they are lucky. The government of North West Frontier Province says they are illegal immigrants, and will not allow them to put up permanent structures. Since May the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and other agencies have been allowed to bring in food, water and medical supplies, but mortality rates are high in the searing daytime heat and bitter nights, particularly among babies and young children.

Many of the refugees in Jalozai are from northern Afghanistan, and find themselves in hostile territory. They do not share the common Pashtun culture of the frontier province and southern Afghanistan, and are openly described by the local governor, Lieutenant-General Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah, as saboteurs, spies, drug peddlers and arms traffickers – "dirty people", he once called them.

Nasir and his family are Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley. They moved to Kabul 15 years ago to escape even worse poverty and cannot speak Pashto, the language of the province. Nasir said: "Even though the Taliban were nearly all Pashtuns, they did not mistreat us because we were Tajiks. I cannot think what is going to happen. I just hope I can find work, because we have arrived here with nothing."

With this he gestured to their surroundings: sacking above their heads, propped up on two poles, and a blanket and more sacking on the ground, set in a sea of similar dwellings. "Even though we were so tired when he reached here, we found it hard to sleep last night," said Nasir. Afghan culture dictates that her son speaks for the family, but Madina nodded emphatically in confirmation.

Even so, the Ahmads know they are lucky. A trickle of families have got through to Jalozai, but millions more people are on the roads in Afghanistan, desperately seeking escape from war and three years of drought.

For the moment Nasir and his family are safe. "We didn't want to leave Afghanistan," he said. "It is our country. If it was run properly, we wouldn't be here. As long as there is peace and I can find work, I don't mind who runs Kabul. But we ordinary people fear that if the Americans come to Afghanistan there will be more bloodshed.

"What do I want to say to America? Please don't come to Afghanistan."