Looming ground war prompts Afghans to flee

War on terrorism: Refugees
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The Independent Online

Northern Afghanistan is now on the verge of all-out conflict, prompting people across the country to prepare to flee their homes and increasing the likelihood of an overwhelming humanitarian crisis.

The reason for the mass flight is less the American and British air attacks than fear that a savage ground war is about to erupt between the Taliban and its enemies, the Northern Alliance.

Mohammed Faroq, a local security official in the Northern Alliance, said: "We have already ordered people to leave their houses if they live close to the frontline and tens of thousands of others will leave if the fighting increases."

In the fertile Shomali plain, north of Kabul, up to 800,000 may have to flee their mud-brick villages.

In opposition-held parts of northern Afghanistan, few refugees have as yet arrived. "This is because life in Kabul is still fairly normal despite the bombings," said another security officer who identified himself only as Omeria, citing a cousin who had just arrived from the capital. "Electricity is off, but this is because the Taliban have imposed a blackout to confuse the US pilots. Otherwise, the shops are open."

People leaving Kabul include taxi and truck drivers using their vehicles to get their families out of the city, he said. "This means that, unless you have your car, it is difficult to find anybody to drive you, though the Taliban checkpoints are letting people through."

The danger is that in a few days the multiple rocket launchers and howitzers visible beside many roads will start firing into the closely-packed villages on the other side. Few villagers have cellars to hide in and so will have to flee.

It has all happened before. In a bleak part of the Panjshir valley, about 10,000 people from the frontline village of Karabagh – from which they were driven by the Taliban three years ago – have pitched their white tents on stony ground near the village of Anaba.

"We wanted to stay, but when the Taliban advanced they drove us out of our houses and set fire to them," said Abdul Khalil, formerly the librarian in the village school. "They killed some of the young men and even the women."

A man with a grey beard called Shot Mohammed, who said he was 53 but looked 20 years older, exclaimed: "Even the Russians were better than the Taliban." The Karabagh refugees have not received any outside food aid for nine months. "We live on stuff like this," said Shot Mohammed, holding out some dried corn.

He had owned a small teashop in Karabagh and spoke nostalgically of its grapes and fruit trees. Like the others in Anaba, all Tajiks, he liked the idea of the United States bombing the Taliban because it allowed him to hope that he could soon go home.

Shot Mohammed thought that the American idea of dropping food as well as bombs was a nice gesture, but did not seem to take the idea very seriously. "I pray that a three or four kilo box of food lands near my tent," he said to laughter from the other refugees.

There are jobs for the refugees from Karabagh, but only of one kind. All those who said they were employed turned out to be soldiers in the Northern Alliance's army. A black-bearded man called Feruz said: "I am just back from the front to see my family. There are many soldiers here in the camp."

It is not necessary to be a refugee in Afghanistan to be poor and underfed. Local health workers say that about 80 per cent of children who live in the Shomali plain are malnourished.

Apart from war, the only way for families to make money is to send one or more of their sons abroad to work, usually to Iran, where there are already two million Afghan refugees.

Most Afghans live lives of terrible insecurity. Muktar Mohammed, the bodyguard of a Northern Alliance general, confided at the military airport at Bagram that the rest of his family all live in Isfahan in Iran. "They had no choice but to go," he said. "I've been a soldier seven years, but four years ago my unit attacked the Taliban and when they counter-attacked I was captured.

"They put me in Kabul jail and my family had nothing to live on, so they went to Iran. I was eventually exchanged, but by that time they had gone. I have not seen them since."

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