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Before The War, The Flood Of Misery
It's a ceaseless human tide, beginning from cities and towns and then sweeping across the countryside, gradually swelling in numbers, only to crash against the Pakistan-Afghan border that Islamabad has sealed. It is a nation on the march, petrified of American missiles and bombs, and reliving the dark memories of the war against the Soviets. And they're fleeing wherever they can—to border towns, to villages or even climbing up the steep mountains.
The sheer scale of their tragedy is staggering. unhcr officials estimate an influx of one million Afghans into Pakistan in the near future; this is expected to balloon by another million depending on the duration of the crisis. Says a unhcr official, "About 20,000 Afghans have already crossed into the Chaman district of Baluchistan. Over 30,000 refugees, mostly women and children, are also stranded on the other side of the Pak-Afghan border, largely due to Islamabad's decision to seal the border."
Harried Afghans are now reluctant to repose faith in the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Omar, who appealed to them to return to their homes as the possibility of US attacks had receded. So the influx continues and the anger against the Taliban continues to mount. Kabul's Gul Mohammed and his family travelled for 48 hours, often through desolate areas at night, to reach the border. Dehydration and hunger sapped and broke his spirit, goading Gul to even contemplate extreme steps. Says he, "I thought of killing my family of eight and leaving a message in the name of Mullah Omar, Gen Musharraf and President Bush, blaming them for their death. But I didn't because suicide is a sin in Islam."
Peshawar and Quetta, Baluchistan's capital, are rife with poignant tales of hope and fortitude. Like that of Mohammed Nazeer and his family, who travelled four days from Khost and then walked for several hours before slipping through the porous border. Says Nazeer, "The people in Paktia and Khost (Osama's base) fear US air strikes and have deserted the cities. We saw the 1998 Cruise missile attack on Khost and just about nobody is prepared to stay back if given the chance to get out of the country."
unhcr officials and Afghan refugees say the situation in Afghanistan is horrendous. Those who haven't left the cities have started to dig in bunkers and stock food to tide over the cruel, wintry months ahead. The famed indomitable spirit of the Afghan has been broken: many are too physically debilitated and psychologically impaired to even attempt fleeing cities and towns. They are simply reconciled to the grim prospect of lethal bombs raining down on them.
unhcr sources say they expect half a million refugees to arrive in Peshawar, mainly from Kabul, Nangarhar and Khost provinces; a similar number of refugees are expected to pour into Baluchistan from Kandahar, Kabul, Herat, Helmand and even parts of western Afghanistan. Most displaced people prefer Pakistan to Iran, largely because religious and cultural ties between them and Shi'ite Iran is, at best, tenuous.
Local tribesmen say human smuggling has become a lucrative business in the border areas. Hardy Afghans traverse treacherous mountain routes and then bribe locals to help them across the border. But others say most of these refugees are later identified and pushed back into Afghanistan.
The problems of the refugees have been compounded by Islamabad's refusal to open the border. Laments Jalalabad's Fateh Ahmad, "We the poor Afghans stand nowhere in the current scenario. We get punished because of the policies of the Taliban. While we are exposed to bombing and missile attacks, Pakistani authorities refuse to allow us entry even when we are in possession of visas and proper documents." Islamabad's refusal to take in more refugees has been guided by the fact that it is already home to some two million Afghans, who either crossed the border because of the Soviet invasion in 1979, the subsequent civil war-like state or were ruined by the drought that has ravaged the country now for nearly three years. Special unhcr teams for emergency operations arrived in Pakistan last week to liaise with the government and make preliminary arrangements to provide shelter and food to about two million new Afghan refugees.
But there could be still some hope for the beleaguered people of Afghanistan. Says a unhcr official, "The silver lining is that the Pakistan government has agreed to assess the situation in accordance with the demands of the international community. The government has also accepted the request to take in more refugees in case of emergency."
The UNHCR spokesman in Islamabad, Yusuf Hassan, says his organisation is contacting neighbouring countries to persuade them to share the burden of refugees in the looming catastrophe. Though Iran has emphatically stated its border will remain closed, it has also promised to assist any cross-border aid operations that may become necessary.
The unhcr says it is trying to keep afloat essential life-saving operations in Afghanistan through its local Afghan staff who are still inside the country. But with the security environment deteriorating rapidly, and with fear gripping the country, the local staff has been told to exercise its judgement in deciding whether or not to work. Once the already-strained unhcr relief ceases, the situation in Afghanistan could reach catastrophic proportions.
Equally worrisome is the decision of the Islamabad-based United Nations Mine Action Programme for Afghanistan to suspend its de-mining operations in eastern Afghanistan. A programme official says, "We have been asked to suspend our operations for 10 days, which is expected to be extended due to the growing security concerns inside Afghanistan." This is fraught with serious consequences for those who are fleeing to the countryside.
Indeed, Afghanistan's 20-year nightmare just doesn't seem to end, bringing into its sweep its neighbours. Post-September 11, South Asia can never be the same.