- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2001

MASLAKH, Afghanistan A dirty gray blanket on the hard desert ground is all that is home for Bibi Gul and her family in the new Afghanistan.

"The sky is my roof and the earth is my floor," she said, gesturing across the dust-swept plains toward the minarets of the historic Persian city of Herat. The words from her chapped, swollen lips are of bitterness rather than romance.

It has been more than a week since she and her five children had their last meal, a begged bowl of rice, and on Friday, she woke to find her 2-year-old son Tahir stiff and cold, frozen to death in the rain of a starless night.

Pushing the veil off her hair, Bibi Gul said: "Now I can show my face, whereas under the Taliban, I wouldn't dare walk around like this or I would be beaten. But what is the use of that if every night you go to bed with empty stomachs? We thought after the Taliban that life would be better, but now I don't even know if we'll survive."

While the West celebrates the surrender of Kandahar and the collapse of the Taliban, in Maslakh camp in western Afghanistan there is no celebratory slaughtering of goats or distribution of sweets, only weeping and funerals.

Every night as the temperature dips well below freezing, as many as 40 people die from cold and starvation. In the six cemeteries scattered through the camp, many of the piles of stones marking graves are so tiny that it is clear most victims are children and babies.

Bibi Gul and the other tentless people of Herat are the refugee crisis that the aid agencies were predicting two months ago. But it is inside rather than outside Afghanistan and largely ignored by the international community.

Thousands of people are sleeping in the open, having fled drought and famine in the north and central parts of the country that before the war relied completely on foreign aid but are now cut off from supplies.

At first sight, Maslakh looks like any other vast Afghan refugee camps scattered around Pakistan and Iran. Ironically, its name means slaughterhouse, after the abandoned buildings that once were the abattoir in the days when there were cattle to slaughter.

The camp was set up four years ago for those escaping both drought and fighting in the north of the country, and its early inhabitants have built mud-brick houses.

Further on are row upon row of tents and only occasional feeding stations where refugees line up to wait for hours for a bowl of gray gruel made of sugar, oil and flour, the daily ration per family.

The drive along the road toward Iran that passes through Maslakh takes almost 20 minutes to reach the end of the camp. Faghir Ullah, the camp administrator, said it houses 800,000 people, though a survey by the French agency Doctors Without Borders, which has a clinic in the camp, put the number at 300,000. Whatever the number, the camp stretches for miles in ever-descending human misery as tents turn to plastic sheets pinned to the ground and then to no shelter at all.

The latest arrivals, people who have come since the Taliban started to collapse a month ago, are mainly Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks. Sitting on blankets on the ground in their colorful garb of purples, turquoises and pinks with necklaces of shells and round-cheeked faces, they looked like market traders.

But the people were not moving. The children were not playing, not even crying, and many were too weak to walk. Some sucked at their clothes and hair, seeking nutrition anywhere. Others lay in bundles on the ground.

"A tent," "a sheet of plastic," "a piece of bread," came the pleas, voiced through parched lips while sobbing women thrust small babies at visitors. Not one had any food, and all claimed not to have eaten for more than a week.

Reporters, veterans of the big Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and many refugee camps in Africa, said they never had seen people in such harrowing conditions.

One man, Lal Mohammed, led visitors to his dying wife, shivering under a blanket and moaning occasionally. Their 12-year-old daughter, Mariam, died on Thursday. "Imagine not being able to feed your children or to keep them warm, to wake up and find them dead," he said. "Please help us. We have lost everything, even our dignity."

Most come from the northern provinces of Faryab, Ghor and Sar-e-Pul and Ghazni in central Afghanistan, mountainous places to which the World Food Program was giving food aid but stopped because of the bombing and that now cannot be reached because the passes are cut off. All told the same story. "We had a good life," said Mr. Mohammed, "but then, four years ago, the rains stopped and our crops could not grow. We had no food, so the cows and goats died, and we ate them, but they were nothing but skin and bones. Then there was nothing to eat but grass, and even that died."

One difficulty is that there is so much poverty in Herat there is little food to feed the refugees. Another is some of the refugees are suspected of being Taliban supporters.

Regardless, they are all dying.

"The world made us lots of promises," said Ismail Khan, the new governor of Herat. "Now people are dying, and it has no excuse not to act."

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