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In refugee camps, peace is an ‘if’

Peshawar, Pakistan

They come from a land where water is another word for hope, where walking through the mountains can get your foot blown off, where political canons change when you pass into the valley of the next warlord, where women are tyrannized and orphan children recruited and used by religious bigots brandishing the Quran.

Yet they want to go home, even if home may be the poorest place on earth.

There are more than 2.5 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, most in a narrow band close to the arbitrary Durand Line that Britain painted in the desert more than a century ago, dividing the glories of its Indian empire from the arid cultural backwaters of Central Asia. For the refugees, crossing the border into Pakistan has meant relative safety from the ills that have plagued their homeland in recent decades.

They’ve come in waves, fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion, or the mad mujahideen feuding that followed the Soviet’s 1989 withdrawal, or the Taliban-imposed puritanical order that in 1996 brought a welcome end to the mujahideen’s reign of terror, or a chronic drought since 1998, or the violent resistance of the Northern Alliance to the tyrannical Taliban, or, most recently, the U.S. air war against the Taliban and its most important financial patron, Osama bin Laden.

When Afghanistan was hot

During these last 25 years, an almost equal number of Afghans fled into Iran, but it was the ones who came here who were to become protagonists rather than simply victims. And the international community played a key role in setting the stage. In 1981, when the Cold War made Afghanistan a hot property, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees -- UNHCR -- spent $109 million for refugees here. In 2000, the total had dropped to $17 million. Donor fatigue and altered geopolitics left the refugees out in the cold, where religious fanatics could work their spells. Burdened by its refugee population, Pakistan practiced studied neglect. As a result, the harsh poverty of the refugee camps, where schools were rare, spawned a generation of young male orphans who grew up without functional families or female influence.

The youngsters were welcomed at no cost into the madrassas, the seminaries started in the border area by the region’s most fanatical Muslim clerics, later to emerge as the frontline combatants for a vision of Islam that sought to restore the alleged purity of traditional life -- as lived in Pashtun villages -- from the sinful grip of globalization.

The Taliban were the direct result not just of distorted religion, but also of Western policies that utilized Afghans -- and fanatics like bin Laden -- when they were needed in the fight against the last generation’s Evil Empire, but then discarded them when they were no longer useful. “The international community dusted off their hands and walked out, leaving the refugees on their own. That was the genesis of the Taliban,” said Mill Hill Missionary Fr. Greg Rice, who runs a treatment center for heroin addicts on the outskirts of Peshawar. From 1986 to 1992, he was director of refugee programs for the local Catholic diocese.

Pakistan, once the fierce realpolitik ally of the United States, felt abandoned as well. More an idea than a nation, Pakistan has always teetered on chaos, a dangerous proposition for a country with nuclear weapons. Yet the West abandoned it and, with a chronically simmering conflict with India on the east, Pakistan wanted nothing more than a friendly neighbor, guaranteeing it access to energy resources in Central Asia and allowing it to concentrate on one war at a time. So it helped create the Taliban, weaving together rising Islamic identity politics with lingering frustration about the West’s abandonment of the region. “Those who wanted to use Islam to promote a political agenda found the actions of the United States very congenial,” said Rice.

A boy struggles with his kite

All this history doesn’t matter much to 7-year-old Abdul Maruf as he faces his daily struggle to get his kite airborne above the brown mud walls and brown mud houses of Shamshatoo, a sprawling refugee camp of some 75,000 Afghans an hour outside Peshawar. The monochrome camp would somehow look hopeless were it not for the colorful flash of the blue tent-like burkas of women walking through the narrow streets, and the occasional swift ascent of Abdul’s kite.

Abdul’s family came to Shamshatoo 10 months ago at the end of a pilgrimage that began on a drought-plagued farm, then led to a camp for internally displaced persons in Mazar-i-Sharif, and then took them across the porous border to the impoverished safety of Pakistan as fighting heated up between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. Soon after arrival, Abdul put together his kite, one of many pleasures banned by the Taliban’s virtue cops. He said his biggest complaint about the camp is its lack of wind, and he ran through the street kicking up dust as he struggled to get his kite airborne.

“I like it here, but I liked it better at home,” he said. “If peace comes, I want to go back home. And I’ll take my kite with me.”

If peace comes.

Despite the optimism of United Nations negotiators and the media-sanctioned view that the Western coalition has all but rescued Afghanistan for democracy, the refugees know better. When they talk about peace, they talk about if, not when.

“I hate life here in the camps with the bad food, the dust, the lack of jobs,” said Suraia, a 25-year-old Afghan who coordinates a women’s educational program in Shamshatoo. Like many Afghans, she uses just one name. “I’m ready to go back. My family has a house and fields back home. We won’t need anyone’s help to live our lives there. We just need an end to the killing. We need someone to stop the fighting and collect the guns, and then we’ll go back. When will that happen?” She paused, waiting for an answer, then supplied her own. “I don’t know. Maybe never.”

Part of the problem is the Northern Alliance. As liberators, the Alliance warlords leave a lot to be desired. The mostly Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara commanders who are fighting the largely Pashtun Taliban killed far more people between 1992 and 1996, when they fought over Kabul with indiscriminate rocket attacks, than the Taliban have since.

Easy to switch sides

“Amnesia is a convenient thing,” said a European diplomat visiting the border area. “They’re winning, they’re on our side, so they’re automatically the good guys.”

It doesn’t matter that in Afghanistan you can switch sides in a moment and keep your Kalashnikov with you. “Many Taliban fighters just took off their turbans and put on a pakol,” said Mohammed Naeem, director of a group called Coordinator of Afghan Relief, referring to the round brown hats that western television viewers have come to associate with Northern Alliance troops.

“The Northern Alliance leaders are talking so nice. They put on good suits and nice ties when they speak to reporters in Kabul or in Germany. Yet under the nice clothes they’re still hill people from Afghanistan. They talk about democracy, but whose democracy? The world has forgotten who they really are, but Afghan women won’t forget how they killed thousands of our husbands and brothers,” Fatana Gailani, president of the Afghan Women’s Council, told NCR.

Gailani said all the hoopla in the West about an end in Kabul to mandatory wearing of the burka outside the home has misrepresented the situation of Afghan women. “I laugh when reporters ask me if I’m happy that Afghan women don’t have to wear the burka,” she said. “Women don’t have schooling, they don’t have power that can match the power of the Kalashnikovs,” the Russian rifles. “They’re spending their time struggling to find food and clothes for themselves and the orphans. Am I happy about an end to the burka for some? Of course. But it’s much more complicated, much sadder than that.”

Voice not heard

Even taking off the burka leaves most Afghan women clad in a chador, a loose black robe that covers the body from head to toe, hardly a symbol of liberation. The handful of Afghan women who were seated at the periphery of the summit in Bonn, Germany, wore chadors, and at the end of the talks their voice had not been heard, notwithstanding the insistence of Laura Bush and Colin Powell that women’s rights be placed on the table.

“There’s no real women’s agenda for the Northern Alliance,” said Gailani. “They’ll talk about it to make the Western powers happy, but they won’t do anything.”

Changing the lives of Afghan women, like everything else in the country, will take time. Aid groups have gently pushed women’s issues in the refugee camps, perhaps a more viable environment for talking about women’s roles -- given that the men are off fighting.

The U.S.-based Church World Service helped organize a group of 400 women in Quetta, the other major Afghan-dominated border city in Pakistan, to sew quilts for other refugees. The women get paid 50 rupees per quilt, which takes them a day to make. That’s about 85 U.S. cents, which is more than many unskilled men make in a labor market where wages have spiraled downward as more hungry refugees arrive from Afghanistan.

The women’s income is more than just a means of survival. “By contributing to the family income, the women come to have a greater say in the family decision-making process,” said Gulshan Maznani, a Church World Service coordinator in Quetta. “It’s much more than quilt-making. It’s really about the empowerment of women.”

Not too comfortable

Yet aid groups working here have not enjoyed a free hand to work in the camps. Pakistani authorities don’t want the refugees to get too comfortable.

“We’ve had to pressure over and over in order to get permission to carry out work with some of the refugees,” said Gul Wali, Catholic Relief Services coordinator in Peshawar. He said the resistance was particularly strong against work in Jalozai, a squalid refugee camp near Peshawar that, by comparison, makes Shamshatoo look good. “Last winter people died in Jalozai because of the cold, and when we wanted to help with food and blankets and tents, all we heard from the government’s commissioner for refugees and the [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] was the word no,” Wali said. “The refugees have suffered their whole lives and many of them came here with nothing. Yet the way the government and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have treated them, they continue being victimized. Their children have no shoes, no place to play, no space for living a dignified life.”

Official resistance has been especially strong to helping the so-called “invisible refugees.” Afraid that if they registered as refugees they would be deported by Pakistani authorities, tens of thousands have crossed the border on smuggler paths and disappeared into dusty urban neighborhoods or refugee camps, many moving in with relatives bound by tribal custom and Islamic hospitality to take the newcomers in, even if it meant spreading nothing even thinner.

Aid for unofficial refugees

Aid agencies and some United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees officials have pushed to change government policy toward the unofficial refugees, “to make the invisible visible,” as Jacques Franquin, emergency director in Peshawar for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said. In late November they persuaded the government to allow a quiet distribution of food to some 50,000 invisibles in Peshawar. And unofficial refugees in Peshawar and Quetta were also permitted to take advantage of a movement of refugees away from places like Shamshatoo and Jalozai to a string of 11 newly constructed camps located in remote areas closer to the Afghan border and supervised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The transfer began Nov. 19 and is expected to go on for weeks.

Although the new camps are literally out in the middle of nowhere in the autonomous tribal areas that buffer the border, the refugees who agree to go there receive tents, food, medical care -- what aid workers refer to as “the pull factor.” Franquin said that the United Nations and aid agencies prefer to “gently relocate” the refugees by persuading them to move voluntarily to the new camps. Yet the transfer, like so many elements of relief work, is plagued with questions. “Sure, it’s a completely voluntary decision on the part of the refugees whether they want to accept the move. Yet is it really voluntary if the people are starving?” asked Kjell Helge Godtfredsen, the emergency director here for Norwegian Church Aid, which works with Church World Service as part of Action by Churches Together, an alliance of Protestant aid agencies.

No going home again

Some of the refugees here will never go back home. Certain sectors of Pakistan’s border economy, such as public transportation, heroin smuggling and gunrunning, are now controlled by ambitious Afghans who’ve built mansions far from the biblical brown mud houses and dusty tents of Shamshatoo and Jalozai. No pull factor for them.

The majority of the refugees are willing to return, refugee leaders and aid officials agree. But conditions in Afghanistan are not inviting. As many as 10 million land mines litter the landscape, most of them remnants of Russia’s murderous misadventure there, and now thousands of unexploded cluster bombs from the U.S. air war daily take lives and limbs. A central government in Kabul, if one ever existed, certainly doesn’t exist now. Housing is ravaged, farms untended, irrigation systems destroyed, schools closed and teachers -- mostly women -- displaced or exiled. Local money markets -- the Arab world’s banking system -- are looted, roads are a mess, communication is a nightmare, and winter is coming on with a vengeance, closing off entire areas of the country for the next several months. And the drought isn’t over.

“Long before the bombing started pushing people away from their homes, people had been displaced from their rural villages by the drought,” said Geir Valle, a Norwegian official with Action by Churches Together. “They shared what they had with each other for as long as they could, but that solidarity ran out. They sold off their carpets and goats until they had nothing left. Then they left for the cities or for other countries. If we want them to go back home, we’ve got to carry out food distribution programs, build water systems and rehabilitate farms and housing, all factors that will contribute to pulling them back home.”

At a late November conference in Islamabad sponsored by international financial organizations, World Bank officials suggested that at least $25 billion would be needed for reconstruction of Afghanistan. And they acknowledged it will take a long time. Just de-mining, a very expensive process, may take decades.

The Islamabad conference took place at the Marriott Hotel, a luxurious place far from the dusty efforts of Abdul Maruf to get his kite airborne. There is a lot of money in relief work, including high salaries for U.N. officials, lucrative contracts for suppliers of needed materials and job opportunities for professional relief workers and, yes, journalists. Some aid workers here fear the world will focus on the refugees only as long as the money is there, and then Afghanistan will once again fade into the background, only to rise again from neglect with new trouble for its people and its neighbors. “The same pattern as the early ’90s is being repeated now. The same visitors, the same smiles, the same promises,” said Rice. The Russians then, Osama bin Laden now. In between, forget Afghanistan.

To strengthen local organizations

Relief workers insist that a central element of aiding Afghans at this moment is strengthening the Afghan nongovernmental organizations, which are the local partners of outside groups such as Catholic Relief Services and Action by Churches Together. They say the reconstruction of Afghanistan, if the warlords let it happen, must be directed by Afghans. Many Afghan nongovernmental organizations, often directed by refugees from outside the country, have kept at it over recent years, running clinics and schools and agricultural projects inside Afghanistan, even under the Taliban. Their creativity and resourcefulness need to be exploited rather than bypassed and ignored by the international relief community.

That’s if peace comes to Afghanistan. In Shamshatoo and Jalozai, in the mud-walled neighborhoods of Quetta and Peshawar, hundreds of thousands of refugees listen to their radios for news about what’s happening back home in places like Kabul and Kandahar and at the U.N.-sponsored conference in Germany. Whether they go home in the coming months depends on the decisions and actions of those fighting for the physical and spiritual terrain of Afghanistan, yet many Afghans are worried about who those people are.

“We are a country with lots of mullahs and mujahideen, but very few politicians,” said Barry Salaam, an Afghan refugee who works with a Danish aid group here. “And politicians are what we most need now.”

Paul Jeffrey is a freelance writer living in Honduras.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001