- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 11, 2001

PESHAWAR, Pakistan An 8-year-old boy mixes a mound of dirt and water with a shovel to just the right consistency. His father forms the mud into doughy balls and his two brothers pound them into molds.
From dawn to dusk, the father and his sons squat in the blazing sun making bricks. "I can't send them to school, because without their help it would be difficult to earn enough to feed them," said the father, Abdul Qayyum, who at age 43 looks like he could be in his 70s.
The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, while unpopular in Pakistan, offers a glimmer of hope to refugees such as Mr. Qayyum of regaining a life that was lost when the Taliban took over five years ago.
"Maybe the bombing will yield a positive result if it gets rid of the Taliban," Mr. Qayyum said. "We could go home. My children could go to school. I'd have a job. That's all we want."
With the U.S.-led campaign nearing the end of its fifth week, the world has seen the face of Afghanistan's refugee crisis: burqa-clad women staggering through a desert, forlorn masses choking border checkpoints, the blank eyes of a child staring through a chain-link fence.
These harrowing images, new to many Westerners, have characterized Afghan life for a generation. Twenty years of revolution, rebellion, civil unrest and natural disaster have shaken millions of Afghan from their homes and sent them in search of safety while their nation convulses.
Afghanistan has long been the source of the world's most acute refugee crisis.
The first civilian migration wave hit with the Soviet invasion of 1979. The mujahideen, a guerrilla resistance movement, drove out the Soviets 10 year later, but through that decade and the years of civil war that followed, refugees were on the move.
The scale of the refugee crisis has been a measure of the intensity of the fighting. By 1990, 6.2 million people were living as exiles in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. More than 4.6 million people eventually returned to their homes.
But the worst drought in memory struck the region last year, adding to the suffering and death.
The Qayyum family's desperate fight for survival began when the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996. President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former mujahideen commander, was driven north as the Taliban established its fundamentalist Muslim regime.
Mr. Qayyum lost his job as a civil engineer at a hydroelectric dam and was forced to abandon the family's three-bedroom, concrete house with an indoor toilet.
Unemployed, homeless and with a family to feed, he set off for Iran, where he worked with a construction company and sent his wages home. Lacking formal refugee status, Mr. Qayyum returned to Kabul for fear of arrest, then gathered his family and left for Pakistan.
"In Iran they were respectful of educated people such as engineers, but in Pakistan, people don't care," Mr. Qayyum said.
Pakistan, already burdened by 2 million Afghan refugees, continues to officially keep its borders closed. But camps being set up and supplied by U.N. relief agencies cannot even handle the fraction of Afghans who slip across into Pakistan each day through unguarded mountain trails.
Those who make it to established refugee camps can count on meager food rations and the opportunity to send their children to camp schools. But families like Mr. Qayyum's, beyond the reach of the United Nations and other relief groups, have to take whatever work they can find.
Last week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) reported that around 135,000 Afghan refugees had arrived in Pakistan since the September 11 terror attacks. The vast majority of those people, like Mr. Qayyum and his family, are so-called "invisible" refugees.
Many shun aid organizations on the border and instead head deeper within the country to cities such as Karachi and Islamabad. Some find shelter in abandoned refugee camps or among settled Afghans from previous waves of refugee migration. Aid workers say that these "invisible" refugees are growing more visible by the day.
"When I pray each night, I pray to almighty God to make the Taliban leaders homeless and jobless like us," Mr. Qayyum said.
He keeps track of news daily, wondering if the air strikes will somehow change things. Possibly the exiled king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, will come back, he said.
"If a government like the one led by Zahir Shah is established in Afghanistan, maybe that would bring peace and stability," he said.
But while sipping tea in his mud house during a midday break, his words quickly turned to the dilemma of how to teach the youngest of his nine children to read and write. "I brought books for them, thinking I could teach them at night. But they are so tired when we go home that I can't ask them to study. Everybody wants to go to sleep.
"Maybe with a little outside help we could establish a school here," he said.
But he said no one from the UNHCR had ever been seen in this neighborhood, about an hour's drive from Peshawar.
Moor Jan Khan worked as an arms merchant selling guns to Afghan guerrillas during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Now he owns the NF Brick Factory where Mr. Qayyum works and two other factories like it. Mr. Khan also hopes for a successful end to the military campaign and the eventual ouster of the Taliban.
"It's good for us but not good for the Afghans. We get cheap labor from people who need a place to live," Mr. Khan said.
He built 24 mud homes near a well that he wired with enough electricity for a few light bulbs and fans.
Workers and their families get to live there for free, but setting up a school, Mr. Khan said, would be too expensive.
"Our union of brick factory owners met once to discuss the idea of opening a school, but we estimated that the cost was out of our reach," he said. "The biggest problem is that people who work don't stay around here for long."
From Mr. Khan's office, a moonscape of bulldozed dirt stretches for miles in all directions, too forbidding even for weeds to take root. The monotony is broken only by sooty smokestacks that tower above giant earthen kilns of this and other brick factories.
He remains undisturbed by the sight of young children toiling outside his door. A 9-year-old girl nearby winces from back pain as she stacks unbaked bricks to dry in the sun. Her father tells her to keep working, only to relent a few moments later to let her take a rest.
A boy nearby shovels coal into a pile to be fed down holes atop a dirt kiln that rises above the ground like a mesa in a desert. When he pauses to glance up at two visitors, the foreman tells him to go back to work.
Children too young to lift bricks guide donkeys loaded with unbaked bricks to a giant storage pile where older children stack them under a protective tarpaulin until space opens up in the kiln.
"Under the Taliban, we had no choice but to come to Pakistan," said Mohammed Alef, 45, a former soldier. "We had no fields to farm, no other employment to earn enough bread to live."
"I want to go to school," said Hayatullah, his 10-year-old son. "But how can I go to school without food to eat?"


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide