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New battle faces survivors of war

November 18, 2001

by Guy Dinmore
Published: November 18 2001

Rows of small freshly dug graves mark the passage of time in Maslakh refugee camp in western Afghanistan where disease and hunger are taking their toll among the inhabitants despite the end of war and an influx of aid convoys.

Nobody knows how many refugees have taken shelter in the camp, some 10 miles from Herat city, where a small town of mud huts has risen out of the desert.

When the Taliban was still in control, registration figures in the United Nations-run camp were manipulated by the Pashtun regime so that more aid could be syphoned off for its desperate army. Aid workers of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimate there are over 100,000 refugees, while others believe the figure is substantially higher and that at least 15,000 more have arrived over the past two weeks.

Nor, says Nasir Ahmad, supervisor of a clinic run by Medecins du Monde, does anybody know how many are dying. He guesses about 20 people, mostly children, are succumbing to diarrhoea and respiratory diseases each day, just as a similar number are being born here.

“We are 25 families just arrived,” shouts one man in a green turban and open sandals. “There’s no one to register us. What shall we do? We live in the desert with no tent or shelter.”

A crowd of men gather around. “We are fasting for Ramadan, but we have to because there is nothing to eat,” says one.

The ration for each family of about eight, distributed by the World Food Programme to those who are registered, is 50kg of flour a month. Families trek to Herat to sell half so that they can buy sugar, oil, tea and fuel.

Registrations stopped a month ago during the confusion of the US bombing when Taliban troops and five tanks took shelter in the camp. Those newly arrived and unregistered get nothing. The IOM, the only agency which continues to work during the bombing, hopes to start registering again soon. But for the moment, its local Afghan staff believes the nutritional situation is under control.

Siobhan Isles of Medecins Sans Frontie`res disagrees. One of the few foreign aid workers to have returned to Herat, she says their clinics are seeing a marked increase in a severe form of malnutrition, kwashiokor. She calls the crisis “extremely alarming and deteriorating”.

Ironically, IOM and the major UN agencies have considerable stocks in Herat which the Taliban did not plunder, and more convoys are crossing the nearby Iranian border each week with fresh supplies. But not enough food is being distributed, Ms Isles says, urging the UN to “get on top of the situation”.

Maslakh, the largest of six camps around Herat, was set up last year to cope with an exodus of people from north and central Afghanistan fleeing severe drought. Over half of the refugees are, like the Taliban, Pashtuns. Most new arrivals are fleeing war, however, as Northern Alliance forces sweep across the country.

Alliance fighters are combing the camp daily for suspected Taliban fighters and their weapons, fearing that Maslakh could become a base for future resistance.

A four-wheel-drive vehicle full of Alliance fighters sped through the dust carrying three new prisoners who had been dragged from their Maslakh hovels. Women and children wailed.

After six years of harsh Taliban rule in Herat, a mainly non-Pashtun city, the fortunes of war have swung back in favour of the Tajiks in the Northern Alliance.

Now it is the Pashtun calling for help, begging for international protection in the camp.

Inside the Medecins du Monde clinic, teenage mothers clutching babies amid swarms of flies wait for help. One young girl, eight years old but looking half the size she should be, is coughing blood. Her mother is a widow.

Aid workers estimate children under the age of five make up 20 per cent of the camp population – whatever that is – while women outnumber men. Many young male Pashtuns retreated with the Taliban southwards to defend the last stronghold of Kandahar from advancing Alliance forces and rebellious Pashtun tribesmen, some of them supporters of the exiled king, Mohammad Zahir Shah.

While the Pashtuns in the camp now live in fear, the Afghan aid workers are relieved the Taliban has gone. There is no more interference in their work by the religious police or greedy officials demanding a share of supplies.

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