- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghans stranded last week in the Pacific are among many who are fleeing Afghanistan, leaving their goods for sale in shops.
"I don't know where they have gone. Maybe they are on that ship," said Habibullah, the owner of one store.
Like many others in Afghanistan, he is paying close attention to diplomatic efforts over the Norwegian cargo ship moored off an Australian island with 460 persons on board, most of them Afghans.
For six days, Australian Prime Minister John Howard has refused to let the stranded migrants disembark on Australian territory, saying he wanted to show their smugglers that his country will not tolerate the illegal trade.
Yesterday, New Zealand and the tiny Pacific island republic of Nauru agreed to accept the migrants. Those in New Zealand found to be genuine refugees will be allowed to apply for residency there, while refugees in Nauru will be resettled in third countries — including Australia.
Ove Thorsheim, Norway's ambassador to Australia, said the migrants were exhausted and dehydrated after weeks or months on the run, but firm about their goal.
"They are very determined to come to Australia," he said after boarding the boat Friday. "Nowhere else will do."
Back home in Afghanistan — an impoverished, war-torn country ruled since 1996 by the strictly Islamic Taliban militia — those left behind tuned into radio broadcasts to follow the saga of their stranded compatriots.
"What choices do they have? They didn't risk their lives for nothing. Look around at this country. There is nothing left for our children," said Mohammed Akram, a former school teacher.
His daughter also was a teacher but is now unemployed because of a Taliban rule prohibiting women from working and girls from attending school. Women also must wear the billowing burqa, which hides them completely except for a mesh opening over their eyes, their only window on the outside world.
Music, movies, television, photography and most forms of light entertainment are banned.
Afghanistan, already ravaged by civil war, also is suffering from the worst drought on record. About 4 million Afghans facing death by starvation, the United Nations says.
"I would leave here tomorrow, if I could," said Nasim Nawabi, a former pilot who now makes less than $1 a day as a porter. "Life is too hard — no jobs, no food, no life."
Afghans already make up the world's largest refugee population, according to the United Nations, which calls Afghanistan a "humanitarian catastrophe." There are 3.7 million Afghans living as refugees in the world, most of them in Pakistan and Iran.
Those two countries are suffering from "asylum fatigue," said Yusuf Hassan of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Pakistan.
"Afghans are no longer welcome. The outside world is indifferent toward the sufferings of Afghans, and there are little opportunities for legal resettlement," he said.

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