Ten thousand refugees stranded on Afghan border

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As aid agencies struggle to care for Afghan refugees who have fled eastward, more than 10,000 others are stranded in a no man's land on the war-wracked nation's northern border - largely out of reach of humanitarian help.

As aid agencies struggle to care for Afghan refugees who have fled eastward, more than 10,000 others are stranded in a no man's land on the war-wracked nation's northern border - largely out of reach of humanitarian help.

Scared to return home and barred from entering Tajikistan to the north, refugees from war and drought have built makeshift huts of reeds and mud on marshy islands in the Pyandzh River, directly on the border.

At least three refugees have been killed by gunfire from inside Afghanistan, and others have been wounded. The shaky security situation has forced humanitarian organizations to keep visits to a minimum.

Temperatures dip below freezing every night, and freezing rain showers lash the camps. The untreated drinking water has infected refugees with typhoid, and four died of malaria over the last month, according to London-based Medical Emergency Relief International.

Sickness, disease or war wounds are reported to have killed 41 people since October, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said yesterday.

The refugees are living on goats and other livestock that they brought with them, as well as food and clothes from aid agencies and the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital.

The UN agency renewed its call to the government of Tajikistan to allow the refugees - including 6,000 children - to cross the border. Ten to 15 families were arriving every night, aid workers said.

The agency is ready to support the refugees for six months in Tajikistan, said Abdul Hak Amiri, local U.N. humanitarian affairs officer.

Pakistan, which also borders Afghanistan, has seen an influx of 110,000 refugees in five months. Many are living in squalor in makeshift camps.

Inside Afghanistan, things are getting worse, aid agencies say. The World Food Program said yesterday that half of all children under 5 are suffering from malnutrition in northern Mazar-e-Sharif, with 20 percent suffering severe cases.

New UN sanctions to force Afghanistan to hand over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden have caused the Afghan currency to nosedive. The devaluation of the currency has driven up the food costs for poor Afghans, said the Taliban's Information Minister, Qadratullah Jamal.

Tajikistan has resisted admitting refugees, worried that some are armed fighters from the Northern Alliance, which is fighting Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia.

Tajikistan is also reluctant to create a precedent that could encourage tens of thousands more refugees to try to enter. Aid workers say some 80,000 displaced people are just across the border in Afghanistan.

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov told other Central Asian leaders earlier this month his country would not allow the refugees to enter under any circumstances.

Impoverished Tajikistan is still recovering from a five-year civil war that ended in 1997 and is suffering the worst drought in decades.

The nation is already home to thousands of displaced people, including some 4,670 Afghans who have refugee status, the United Nations says.

The first asylum-seekers arrived in 1992, after the collapse of the pro-Soviet Afghan government. The flow resumed in 1996, after the hard-line Taliban seized the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Khafizullo Khalidi, a 49-year-old seller of snacks at a department store in Dushanbe, said he regretted he hadn't tried reaching the West when he first arrived in Tajikistan in 1992.

Eight years later, he depends on money from relatives in the West to help him survive.

"It was easier then, both financially and because now Afghans have become 'untouchables"' painted as terrorists and extremists, Khalidi said.

Afghan refugees, he said, are seen as "no better than rabbits."

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