PESHAWAR, Pakistan Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees living in conditions so squalid that Pakistan blocks Western reporters from visiting them are to be moved to new camps that have been set up to house and feed families fleeing the war.
An agreement reached between the United Nations and Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province yesterday could begin moving the refugees, who have fled since the September 11 attacks on the United States, as early as next week.
In the camps, malnourished children sleep under rags sewn together into makeshift tents as the late autumn nights get colder with each passing day. Many belong to families that are ineligible for U.N. food rations.
Sick with fever, chest and ear infections, they line up with their mothers waiting for the next available doctor at a clinic run by the French relief group, Doctors Without Borders. Several physicians, including Dr. Friba Aabedi, see up to 300 patients each in a single day.
“All the conditions, the hygiene, are very bad to the degree that we can’t prevent people from getting sick. People aren’t able to boil water,” Dr. Aabedi told a reporter who spent several hours inside the Jallozai camp before yesterday’s announcement.
The relocation decision “is good news for thousands and possibly tens of thousands of Afghans,” said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. “We will now be able to assist them and make sure that their basic needs are met.”
For weeks, the Pakistani government has blocked Western reporters from entering the Jallozai camp near Peshawar, which has swelled by an estimated 15,000 refugees to its present size of 75,000 since the suicide attacks on the United States. The Afghanistan-based al Qaeda terrorist group is the prime suspect.
Tens of thousands of other Afghans are believed hiding with relatives or in safe houses in Peshawar and other border cities such as Quetta in the south.
In the Jallozai camp yesterday, Zeba Gul, whose farmer husband died from a rocket in Afghanistan’s civil war a year ago, held her tiny 7-year-old daughter as another doctor prescribed antibiotics for a chest infection.
Through the mesh veil of her all-covering burqa, her voice was almost as invisible as her face. Mrs. Gul, 35, told how she and her five children walked through mountains for seven days from their village in Afghanistan to reach Pakistan.
Without a U.N. food card, Mrs. Gul cannot receive monthly food rations. She works at a bakery run by a private-aid group to feed her children, and looks forward to her 10-year-old son, now an apprentice at a carpet factory, becoming the family bread winner.
“We had nothing in Afghanistan. I want to stay in Pakistan because we have everything here,” she said.
The scene is similar at other refugee camps, where new arrivals crowd in increasing numbers to the edges, without food and lucky if they can find a battered canvas tent. Western visitors are warned to avoid walking along the dusty roads, because crowds of hungry children, with sullen eyes and a dignified shyness, expect food.
The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) is providing more than 50,000 tons of food each month to refugees in Pakistan and a like amount to families displaced within Afghanistan. U.N. officials say they can only provide food and shelter to Afghan refugees who are officially registered by the Pakistani government.
Pakistan until yesterday refused to register any refugees, saying it fears a flood of new arrivals as the U.S.-led war continues against Afghanistan’s Taliban government, al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Now, undocumented Afghans who come forward and register will be moving to two newly opened camps in the province as early as next week, Mr. Kessler said. An additional six are being prepared in the region, along with others around the border crossing near Quetta. The new camps, typically located on desert sites far from cities, have been criticized for their harshness and inaccessibility. But Pakistani officials say they have no choice, given the burden of more than 2 million long-term refugees from past Afghan wars who have permanently settled here.
The newcomers, a senior Pakistani official said, “will not be allowed to leave their camps. Food, water and shelter will be provided there.”
Dr. Assadullah Menapal has worked at the Jallozai camp since last Christmas Day, and at times, he said, the misery almost overwhelms professional dispassion.
“In our society, men don’t cry; otherwise I would cry at the sight of these families just arriving, hungry, with no food, no shelter, no tent, just sitting on the ground, exhausted,” he said.