The Taliban are gone, but the hunger and cold remain

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The Independent Online

"I was born in war and grew up in war," said Wali Mohammed. "I don't know what peace is like. All I have seen is bloodshed, conflict, and lack of security. I have seen nothing good in my life."

Wali Mohammed is 25, but worry lines are carved into his face, making him appear 10 years older. A farmer from Afghanistan's south-western Helmand province, he fled with his wife and three children last month when the war against terrorism came his way. "Already we were suffering because of three years of drought, and the children were hungry," he said. "We escaped, leaving everything behind."

Now Wali Mohammed and his family are in Makaki refugee camp, a cluster of tents on a flat, parched plain where Afghanistan meets Iran. The Iranian Red Crescent is caring for more than 5,000 people who have arrived in the past six weeks, and water and electricity have been fed across the border from the nearest Iranian village, also named Makaki.

But their lives still seem unimaginably hard to anyone from Britain: canvas and small wood fires give little protection from sub-zero temperatures at night, and at the end of a day's fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, there is nothing to quell hunger but bread and tea. Here people are at least safe, but they are exhausted, anxious, and joyless.

These are the forgotten victims in the conflict. While hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, Iran's international isolation means that the 70,000 new arrivals from Afghanistan, and the hundreds of thousands near its border, have attracted no more than a relative trickle of aid. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has allocated only $5m (£3.5m) for the two million Afghans in Iran, some of whom have been there for 20 years.

The sun had sunk below the bone-dry horizon, and Wali Mohammed was anxious to break his fast. But he lingered to make his point: "I wish Afghan leaders could sit down together and make a government instead of fighting each other. That would be enough."

Even he was more fortunate, however, than the latest arrivals at Makaki. Outside the camp, which cannot be expanded any further, a makeshift row of plastic shelters has sprung up, housing people so desperate that they would rather cling on in this barren corner of south-western Afghanistan than risk the anarchy that has engulfed most of the country.

The temperature was plunging as darkness came, and Gul Bibi's seven-year-old nephew, Najib, was beginning to shiver. He had no shoes or sweater, just cotton trousers and a long-sleeved T-shirt. Gul Bibi, an 80-year-old widow, was part of a 50-family group from a nomadic tribe which had decided to trek hundreds of miles in search of security, only to be robbed by an armed band. "They took everything, even our carpets," she said. "We don't know who they were." All over the camp there were similar tales of wretchedness. Mohammed Jabaz, a 60-year-old whose beard was as white as his turban, looked bewildered. He lost his wife in the bombing, and his two unmarried daughters had brought him to Makaki. "We had to sell everything we had, down to our blankets, just to get here," he said. "Now we are cold."

The only recent improvement in the refugees' lives is that they are no longer beaten and bullied by the Taliban guards who used to run the camp. "Men with guns were everywhere," said Cheraghchi Bashi, an Iranian doctor. He works for Amar, the refugee aid organisation set up by Emma Nicholson, which The Independent on Sunday is supporting for its Christmas appeal. "All the women had to wear burqas, and we were prevented from speaking to most of the people."

Now the Northern Alliance is in charge, and while gunmen are still around, their presence is more discreet. The women have shed their burqas and resumed their normal brightly coloured robes and veils. Seven-year-old Bismillah was trying out a kite he had made earlier in the day. "Before, it wasn't allowed," he said.

It was a rare spark of enjoyment in a place of hopelessness. As we in the West prepare for Christmas, the refugees of Makaki, like the rest of Afghanistan's displaced millions, will be grateful for the bare necessities of life.