[Last update: UNKNOWN 2001]

For Many, Home is a Blanket and the Food is Weeds

by Farnaz Fassihi
Star-Ledger Staff


MASLAKH, Afghanistan -- A man named Abdulaziz, clutching a notebook and a blue pen, walked around the refugee camp, recording the dead.

A 5-year-old boy here. An elderly man there. A 20-year-old mother of three. A 1-year-old girl the previous night.

By 11 a.m. yesterday, he had gathered the names of 42 refugees who had died from cold and hunger in the past 24 hours.

The frail body of Shirin, the mother of three, was placed on a piece of wood and covered with a green blanket. Her husband, Baran, wiped his tears and followed a group of men carrying her body to the cemetery.

The cemetery, half a mile from where the refugees are settled, consists of humps of earth -- small ones for children, larger ones for adults -- covered with stones.

As grave diggers shoveled into the earth, Shirin's body was placed on the ground facing Mecca. The crowd said a prayer.

"She hadn't eaten anything for 10 days," Baran said. "We have no tent, either. She froze to death last night."

Baran brought his family to this camp outside the city of Herat 10 days ago from Badghis. Like hundreds of other families at Maslakh, which means "slaughterhouse," they have no shelter and are not yet eligible for food distributions.

A seemingly endless stretch of families is camped on the bare ground here, waiting for help that has yet to come.

These refugees have little to lose. Staying in their villages would have meant risking starvation. The land they farmed has been devastated by a three-year drought, and the international aid they had been relying on for food stopped two months ago, when relief agencies evacuated their foreign workers.

Then U.S. and British airstrikes put an end to all relief efforts.

Now, as Afghanistan's major cities are liberated from Taliban forces and the airstrikes have eased, relief workers are rushing back. But even more refugees are arriving, now that it is safer to be on the move.

The camps, as dire as they are, offer a glimmer of hope for Afghans in search of food, water, shelter, blankets, warm clothes.

Several trucks carrying jars of water and blankets arrived yesterday afternoon, and thousands of people swarmed around the vehicles, grabbing what they could. The scene quickly got out of control, and guards began whacking at people with sticks.

Despite the conditions, hundreds of men and women, children and the elderly will travel -- usually huddled in the backs of trucks -- for three days and nights to get to the refugee camps.

Once here, families must be registered to get food, which is not plentiful.

Also, there is a shortage of tents and blankets, although the United Nations High Commission for Refugees gave out 1,000 tents and blankets this week.

The yellow packages of American meals dropped by U.S. airplanes are nowhere to be found at the camps. Instead, they are at the local bazaar in Herat, on sale for 50 cents each.

Hygiene is a major problem. There are no toilets or baths.

Refuse is everywhere, and the stench is unbearable.

Each family seems to have at least four or five children. The little ones are too hungry to cry. They sit motionless in their mother's arms, and every now and then a tear trickles down their dusty faces.

The older ones chase each other around and play games with stones and sticks. Most of them have no shoes. None of them has socks or winter clothes. A few lucky ones are dressed in torn cotton sweaters or jackets too small or too big for their tiny bodies.

Farough, an 11-year-old boy whose family of six arrived here from Chaghcharan a month ago, says he spends his days begging for a piece of bread or a sip of clean water or standing in line for hours in the cold in hope of getting a bag of rice.

"My mother is deaf and dumb and my father is very old," he explained. A 2-year-old sister died from the cold a few days ago. "We came because we had nothing to eat at home, but here sometimes I eat and other times nothing. The ground is my mattress and the sky is my roof. We are very miserable."

Farough doesn't remember the last time he had a warm meal, and he says he has never played with a toy. He is illiterate. If he could have one wish, he said, it would be to read a book.

The governor of the province of Herat, Esmaeel Khan, says 100,000 more refugees are on their way to the camps and unless international aid arrives quickly, the human catastrophe here will reach biblical proportions.

"Our fear is that as the cold intensifies, (so will) the situation of the internally displaced. It will get worse as more people are arriving at the camps every day," said Christophe Coeckelbergh, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Herat.

Maslakh is Afghanistan's largest camp, with 200,000 refugees. Afghanistan was already in the throes of the largest refugee crisis in the world before the Sept. 11 attacks. The recent war has exacerbated the situation, creating what international aid agencies are calling the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

After the Soviet invasion in 1979, nearly 4 million Afghans flooded to neighboring Iran and Pakistan. In the past few years, a million Afghans were uprooted by drought and ongoing tensions with the Taliban forces. And since Sept. 11 and the ensuing war against terrorism in Afghanistan, 6 million more people have been on the move, aid agencies say.

"No one cares about us. We are dying of hunger and thirst. We are sleeping in the cold night after night," said Zeinab, a 20-year-old mother of four, whose home is a thin brown blanket spread on the dusty ground. She said she feeds her children weeds and grass. At night her husband collects the refuse and burns it for heat.

"Do you know if anywhere in the world there are people suffering like us?" she asked.

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