Afghan refugees wait at border

AP, 22 September 2001

CHAMAN CROSSING, Pakistan-Afghanistan Border (AP) -- Fenced out of Pakistan by a roll of rusty barbed wire, hundreds of Afghan refugees crouched on the barren ground, unprotected against a scorching desert sun, staring bleakly ahead of them.

Some had been here at this desolate border crossing for up to five days, desperate to find shelter from what they believe are inevitable American airstrikes on their homeland, whose leaders have refused to bow to U.S. demands to surrender Osama bin Laden.

On Saturday, a long line of about 1,000 refugees -- most of them women and children, the sick and old -- waited in a dusty no-man's land at the border crossing outside the Pakistani city of Chaman, at the foot of the forbidding 7,500-foot Kouzak Mountains.

With Pakistani frontier guards standing watchfully nearby, a few threw quick, furtive responses to journalists on the other side of the barbed-wire barrier: Yes, they were afraid to go back to their homes in Afghanistan. No, they did not know how long they could bear to wait here in these conditions, hoping to cross to safety.

Most of these refugees fled homes in and around the Afghan city of Kandahar, about 70 miles to the northwest. It is the home base of the Taliban, the purist Islamic movement that rules most of Afghanistan.

President Bush says the Taliban must hand over bin Laden -- the Saudi exile suspected of masterminding the catastrophic Sept. 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- or share in his fate. So Kandahar is considered a prime potential target, and many of its citizens are terrified.

Umar Gulahmed, a 23-year-old carpenter, fled Kandahar six days ago with his 20-year-old wife, Farzana, and his year-old son, Raza. They managed to make their way across the border and on to Quetta, the provincial capital of Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, about 500 miles southwest of Islamabad.

In the week before Monday night, when the border closed, an estimated 15,000 people crossed over into Pakistan at the Chaman crossing, United Nations and Pakistani officials say. Uncounted others have slipped through since, along nearby unguarded desert frontier.

But several thousand of the new arrivals -- no reliable figures are available -- have been rounded up by Pakistani police and returned to Chaman to be sent home, including the Gulahmed family.

Farzana Gulahmed, swathed in a long, enveloping black veil, knelt in the shade of a shed on the Pakistani side of the border, brushing away flies that clustered at sores on baby Raza's face, while her husband spoke of their expulsion.

``We are afraid of attacks, and I tried to get my family to safety,'' he said. ``I'm angry, but I'm a poor man -- I can't fight these forces.'' Pushing his way up, a Pakistani policeman gruffly instructed Gulahmed in the border area's Pashtun language: ``Tell them you are going back to Afghanistan voluntarily.''

With 2 million Afghan refugees already crowded within its borders -- the result of two decades of unrelenting warfare that left Afghanistan poor, in ruins, and under the Taliban's repressive rule -- Pakistan already feels overwhelmed. The country simply cannot cope, it says, with what could become a new tidal wave of Afghans fleeing feared or actual fighting.

``We already have so many refugees now,'' said Mohammed Shafi Kakar, the Pakistani district coordination officer at the Chaman crossing. If fighting comes, he said, ``People may rush across the border in a mass, and that will be a big, big problem for us.''

The border was closed to all but those with valid travel documents after the United States asked Pakistan to shut down the flow of supplies to the Taliban. But international agencies, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, have urged Afghanistan's neighbors to reopen their borders to those trying to flee.

The UNHCR last week called for a ``humanitarian coalition'' to share the burden and expense of looking after the refugees. Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, warned of an ``unfolding humanitarian crisis'' both inside Afghanistan and in those countries bordering it unless the international community steps in quickly with pledges to help.

Regional officials in Pakistan say they have devised a plan to build 100 new border camps to house one million additional Afghan refugees in the event of a U.S. assault on Afghanistan.

At Chaman, authorities have spread barbed wire about 35 miles in either direction from the crossing point, to keep refugees from simply walking around the border post.

That isn't keeping refugees out of Pakistan -- at night, they cut through the barbed wire and slip across. But only the able-bodied and unencumbered can make their way through the desert terrain in the dark -- which is why most of those waiting in the no-man's land on the other side were women,

children, elderly and the sick. Refugees said they had no access to clean water, and the children in particular were suffering from diarrhea and other ailments.

If they cross the border clandestinely, refugees must find a way across the Koujak Mountains, whose steep, bare slopes rise starkly from the desert floor.

Most then head for Quetta, the provincial capital -- only 105 miles away, but a three-hour drive on often-rough roads. The route passes by mud-brick settlements, apple orchards -- some of them killed by the area's four-year drought -- and forlorn roadside graveyards with Islamic prayer flags fluttering in the desert breeze.

Not everyone passing through Chaman, though, was trying to get into Pakistan. Striding back through the crossing toward the Afghanistan side on Saturday were hundreds of supporters of the Taliban.

Arriving refugees said the Taliban had moved tanks into position around Kandahar and stepped up patrols by its fighters.

Norzei's companion, 25-year-old Taleb Seflal -- whose first name is the singular of Taliban, which means students or disciples -- had brought his family to safety in Pakistan a day earlier, and now was heading home to do battle with any American attackers who might come.

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