Photos of the refugees
Pakistan keeps Annan from 'world's worst' camp
Afghan refugees eating grass, freezing temperature kills 18 children

Wrapped in plastic, the rejected wait to die

The Guardian gains access to the Afghans' grim refugee camp which the Pakistani authorities kept from the eyes of the UN secretary general

The Guardian (UK), March 16, 2001
Rory McCarthy in Jalozai

For the past five days the year-old child has been lying on an earth floor under a thin sheet of plastic, unconscious and with acute diarrhoea. As the sun sinks again into the thick cloud of dust on the horizon, Abdullah knows his son Waseem's death is only hours away.

"I took him to the doctor here at the camp. He gave him medicine but it did not help," he said.

"Then I went to a private doctor and he charged 200 rupees (2.30) for more medicine. That was all the money I had left, but I paid. Still he has not recovered. Now I know it is too late. Tell me, what can I do?"

Waseem's last hours are being spent in the refugee camp that Pakistan does not want the world to see. On Monday the authorities prevented the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, from entering Jalozai camp. Improbably for a country with the eighth largest armed forces in the world, the military government said it did not have enough soldiers and police to protect him.

Pakistan has also barred aid agencies from helping the 80,000 Afghans here. It says the refugees must return home.

To the few who do see the camp the reality is overwhelming: Jalozai is filled with the dying. Attached to the blue canvas wall of one of its three overworked medical clinics hangs a sign in neat Pashtu and Persian script : "Equipment for digging graves and making coffins is available in this hospital."

Strewn across a wide expanse of dusty, red-brown earth, thousands of squalid shelters are set up almost on top of each other. Small strips of meat, known as landi , hang on strings running from one tent to the next. In the cold of an Afghan spring the meat, donated during the Eid ul-Adha Islamic holiday last week, would keep. Under Pakistan's unforgiving sun it rots.

These are not the sturdy tarpaulin tents provided by the UN and other aid agencies in the official refugee camps elsewhere in the North West Frontier province. Aid workers call Jalozai "Plastic City." Newly arrived refugees must buy their own shelters: a square metre of dirty plastic costs 15 rupees (18p), the same price as 2kg of rice.

Toilets have been dug in the ground but not deep enough. A brief fall of rain and they overflow, running in broad, disease-ridden streams through the camp.

It is not the reception that Amir Gul expected to find when drought and fighting forced his family to leave their village in central Afghanistan, eight weeks ago.

"Somebody told me if I had no job, no home and no money I should go to Jalozai," the said. "We stay here in the hope that today aid may arrive, or if not then perhaps tomorrow. I have spent two months like this."

When he first arrived in Pakistan Mr Gul, 68, a farm labourer, borrowed 400 rupees (4.70) from a friend. Now the money has been spent and he begs in the local market to support his eight children.

"The money went in two or three days. I cannot go back to my home and I cannot live here." Afghans are usually too proud to show their tears, but Amir Gul held a fist to his chest and sobbed.

In the past six months more than 230,000 refugees have poured across the border from Afghanistan's worst drought in 30 years and renewed fighting between the Islamic Taliban militia and the remnants of the former government. In November, in breach of international humanitarian law, Pakistan closed the border. But still the refugees come, bribing border guards or sneaking through mountain passes between the checkpoints.

The first to arrive were the lucky ones. They live in Shamshatoo, a more orderly site with mud huts, tents, food distribution and a water supply.

But since January the UN has not been allowed to register the thousands of new arrivals at Jalozai as refugees. Pakistan, which already has 2m Afghan refugees, insists they are either economic migrants or refugees who arrived years ago.

The UN disagrees, but aid workers are not allowed to move these people to other camps or issue the "verification" cards which would entitle them to free food, blankets and tents.

"We need shelter as soon as possible," said Amir Gul. "Either start the verification or shoot us."

The UN says it has the money to act if Pakistan gives permission. Another 10,000 people could be moved to Shamshatoo and the remainder at Jalozai could be moved to a better site nearby which has a proper water supply.

"The tragedy with Jalozai is that we are not able to do anything to help these people and that is why the conditions have deteriorated," said Yusuf Hassan, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "This is eroding all the good Pakistan has done in the past."

In the camp a thin veneer of ordinary life remains. Shortly before sunset men kneel in the brick ruins of an old mosque and bow in prayer. A handful of children fly tatty, paper kites low over the tents and an ice-cream seller pushes his cart home.

A crowd gathers as Khan Kochai, one of the camp's elders, describes how families are starving, forced to buy stale bread from the local market, which they soak into a barely edible mush.

"They have built us toilets, but when the stomach is hungry who needs toilets? They built a helicopter pad here for Kofi Annan. We wanted him to see the problem but the Pakistanis would not let him come."

He pulls from his inside waistcoat pocket a typewritten letter which he had hoped to pass to the UN secretary general.

"Please give us a chance in the world," it reads. "And suffice of free living to breathe from good and free air."

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