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Children first to die among Tajik refugees

COLD and disease are beginning to take their toll among some 100,000 refugees who have fled into Afghanistan to escape bitter fighting in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, with a relief co-ordinator reporting that three or four children are dying every night in freezing temperatures at one makeshift camp.

About 15,000 people are camped around the village of Qulukh Tepa on the banks of the Oxus River, which divides the two countries, said Michael Semple, Oxfam's director for Afghanistan. Although villagers had taken in as many refugees as possible, 'there are improvised shelters as far as the eye can see'.

The cold hit hard at the poorest and the most vulnerable, such as women who had lost their menfolk. Many families had struggled across the river with tents and bedding, with a handful even managing to bring vehicles over, but 'if you pass through the settlement at night, you see plenty of families just huddled together under the stars'. Apart from children dying of cold, many refugees were having to drink polluted water from the river, leading to diarrhoea on top of respiratory infections and an outbreak of measles.

Conditions in the camp were chaotic when he arrived, reported Mr Semple. There were riots when relief helicopters arrived, with only the strongest able to grab food. An Afghan mujahedin commander had fired wildly into a crowd of refugees pressing towards relief supplies, hitting one boy in the groin.

The Oxfam official stayed to organise a landing area and a distribution system, but said: 'Without effective community structure and leaders in the anarchic spontaneous settlement, there will not be proper distribution - that will have to wait until they get to a properly organised camp.'

A Reuters correspondent in the area reported that about 30,000 refugees had moved deeper into Afghanistan from Qulukh Tepa, where gunfire from the fighting between Islamic rebels and Tajikistan's formerly Communist government echoed in the distance. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is setting up a camp for 10,000 people about 37 miles miles south of the border, and officials said the first refugees might begin moving in tomorrow.

Many of the refugees are reluctant to be settled in a remote semi-desert area, calling instead to be allowed to go to the towns, where they might be able to find work. 'They have no idea of just what a bad state war-ravaged Afghanistan is in,' commented Mr Semple.

The refugee exodus, the worst humanitarian crisis in Central Asia this century, stems from months of fighting in Tajikistan among rival clans whose hatreds broke into the open after the collapse of Kremlin rule. One out of 10 of the republic's 5 million people has been displaced by the civil war which broke out in September after the ex-Communist president, Rakhmon Nabiyev's removal by Islamic militants.

The displaced people in Afghanistan are mainly Tajiks from the mountainous north who were settled in the south of Tajikistan under Stalin to grow cotton. Mr Semple described them as 'victims of ethnic cleansing' by lowland Tajiks and Uzbeks seeking to reclaim what they regard as their ancestral lands.

Having fled across the Oxus, they are becoming entangled in Afghanistan's unstable politics. UN relief officials are meeting resistance from mujahedin commanders who want the refugees settled in their zones of control to attract UN assistance and bolster their potential military strength for involvement in the Tajik conflict.

(Photograph and map omitted)