Monday, September 22, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan | Bringing down his shovel with a dull thud, Wakhil Malik Muhammad broke ground on another home away from home.

Heavy fighting across southern Afghanistan over the past two years has forced thousands of families to flee backcountry villages caught between the firepower of coalition forces and a resurgent Taliban.

At a time when the Bush administration is re-evaluating its entire strategy in Afghanistan, a steady stream of Afghans from the Taliban-controlled south is flocking to a mud-baked refugee camp on the western edge of the capital.

“Every day we were living in fear, so we finally left,” said Mr. Muhammad, a native of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, who first migrated to neighboring Uruzgan province with his wife and two daughters before coming to Kabul a month ago. “It is better to die by choice than to wait for a bomb.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that Washington is considering changing its war strategy in Afghanistan in light of rising levels of violence, an increasingly complex insurgent threat and concern over civilian deaths from U.S. air strikes.

“You have an overall approach, an overall strategy, but you adjust it continually based on the circumstances that you find,” the Associated Press quoted Mr. Gates as saying while attending a NATO meeting in London. “We did that in Iraq. We made a change in strategy in Iraq and we are going to continue to look at the situation in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Gates, who visited Kabul last week, said a shortage of troops has forced the military to resort to more air raids - a situation he hopes to address by deploying more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

The Afghan Ministry of Refugees estimates that about 4,500 people now live within the tented warrens of the Kabul camp, a fraction of the estimated 15,000 that have been uprooted so far this year by violence in the south.

The precise number of displaced is hard to pin down because some families return to their homes once the fighting moves elsewhere. But camp residents familiar with the insecurity in Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces say they are not planning to go back any time soon.

“We are happy to live here now, and will stay until there is peace in our [village],” said Tawos Khan, a representative for dozens of Helmand families who said he lost eight of his neighbors in a bombardment last year.

Seated inside a makeshift mosque made of earth, southern elders recounted how Taliban militants would use their villages as safe havens when under pressure from coalition forces; or to launch attacks on convoys and foot patrols. This had the backlash of attracting deadly reprisals from coalition forces.

Din Muhammad, a truck driver from restive Musa Qala district in Helmand, said he was out running errands several months ago when an artillery barrage leveled his home, killing his uncle and aunt-in-law.

He arrived in camp a week ago with his two wives and four children after an exhausting three-day journey on the flatbed of a truck.

“We lost everything,” he said.

Shah Wali, a longtime opium poppy farmer, said the Taliban controlled his village in the Sangin district of southern Helmand, the world´s largest opium-producing region. Each month he was forced to give 20 percent of his total cultivation to militants as a tax.

“They said that if we are willing to fight and kill ourselves, then you must obey us,” Mr. Wali said, stroking his white beard. “They would kill us for being traitors if we ever tried to leave.”

He was still able to earn as much as $8 a day to support his family, he added, until the sporadic violence became intolerable. “Here there is no work for us, nothing.”

With the added worry of the oncoming winter, camp residents complain that assistance from the government and aid agencies has been slow to reach them. Food and clean drinking water are said to be in short supply. Aside from some tarpaulins, hurricane lamps and children´s clothes provided by the U.N. refugee agency, they have largely relied on the generosity of private donors and Kabulis living nearby to see them through.

On a recent afternoon at the start of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, a local man handed out oval-shaped loaves of bread and Iranian dates to a clutch of refugees gathered ahead of the evening call to prayer. Muslims break their fast each day at sundown.

Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Kabul, said his organization was in the process of screening people to distinguish legitimate refugees from those who have joined the camp to receive free handouts.

There are further concerns that if arriving families are given more than the bare essentials, a temporary camp could become a permanent one they refuse to leave.

“This is not a long-term solution for them. … They need to go back to their places of origin soon for help to be sustainable,” Mr. Farhad said.

Since the Taliban government was ousted in late 2001, Afghanistan has faced a massive inflow of returning refugees displaced by previous wars.

Last year, Iran deported more than 360,000 Afghans, causing a humanitarian emergency in parts of the west. Another 100,000 followed between January and May of this year.

Pakistan had also planned to repatriate the 2.4 million Afghans still living in camps on its side of the border by the end of next year, but now says it may review its deadline in light of the strains already placed on Afghanistan´s cash-strapped government.

“We don´t have a special budget to help these people,” said Abdul Qadir Ahadi, the deputy Afghan minister of refugees and repatriation, referring to residents of the Kabul camp. “It´s a problem.”

Mr. Ahadi acknowledged that worsening security in parts of the southern provinces prohibits many families from returning in the near term, forcing them to find someplace safe within his country’s borders.

He said blankets, fuel and other provisions are being readied for distribution to help those displaced cope with the bitter winter months, when temperatures can drop below freezing.

Still, given the evolving security situation in the south, camp residents are divided on whether to stay or go.

“If we go home the bombs will probably kill us,” said Mr. Wali, the farmer. “If we stay here the cold might do the same.”

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