- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 17, 2001


Critically ill patients being transported by wheelbarrow. Patients receiving scarce drugs under the watchful eye of machine-gun toting Pakistani police officers. Journalists being hustled away for daring to photograph female patients, who constitute 70 percent of those being treated at this remote makeshift medical camp.

Such scenes are part of the daily life at the Naseer Camp Hospital, a medical way station set up at the remote Torkham crossing straddling the Afghan border in northwest Pakistan. While wary armed guards from Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime look on from their side of the border, the daily stream of the poor, the sick and the newly homeless trek here seeking a measure of relief.

Even before the U.S.-led military campaign began in earnest last month, Afghanistan's killing mixture of civil strife and natural disasters over the past two decades had produced the world's largest pool of refugees.

Pakistan has received nearly 2 million Afghan refugees fleeing violence and deprivation at home, a number matched by Iran. The war has only increased the urgency of the flood and the need for medical aid, with an estimated 135,000 Afghans entering Pakistan just since September 11, according to U.N. estimates. Both Pakistan and Iran have tried to head off a new influx of refugees and the Torkham crossing is supposed to be closed to Afghans trying to reach Pakistan.

For those who do get across, many of the scenes at the Naseer Camp Hospital are heartbreaking.

A doctor displays X-rays for Wali Khan, a 10-year-old Afghan boy wounded in last week's fighting around Jalalabad. Clearly visible on the X-ray is the bomb fragment that had lodged in the boy's skull. His father had carried him for six days through lawless territory to reach the Pakistani border site, crossing through an unguarded pass to reach the camp.

As the doctor holds up the X-ray for inspection, the child lies quietly on his bed, a large bandage wrapped around his head, obscuring nearly half his face.

The Taliban's treatment of women, much criticized in the West, can be felt in the care offered to patients at the border hospital. Taliban guards, stationed just across the border, object strenuously when a photographer attempts to take pictures of female patients.

They ordered local Pakistani officials to eject journalists attempting to take pictures of a sick female Afghan refugee, a woman about 35 years old who complained of difficulty breathing.

She objected when the border guards demanded she cover her face with a blanket in the presence of the Western journalists, and in the ensuing confrontation, the journalists were ordered to leave the border area, even though they had official documents allowing them to be there.

Refugee organizations active in the area have been anxious to improve conditions in the border areas and move the beleaguered refugees to more established camps farther from the area. Patients at the Naseer Camp Hospital are given what treatment is available, while those needing more intensive care are sent to hospitals in the regional city of Peshawar.

International aid officials yesterday offered little hope that the patients at the Naseer Camp Hospital or their fellow refugees in states around the region would be returning to their homes anytime soon, with the fighting still going on inside Afghanistan and the cold winter months looming.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva yesterday said it was preparing for what it called "one of the most daunting humanitarian efforts since the Balkan wars of the 1990s" to deal with both the refugee crisis and the millions more inside Afghanistan who have been driven from their homes.

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