Thousands of refugees facing winter in remote mountains

CNN, November 1, 1999
From Correspondent Nic Robertson

PANJSHIR VALLEY, Afghanistan (CNN) -- More than 60,000 Afghan refugees are facing a harsh winter in the Hindu Kush mountains north of Kabul after fighting between the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban and opposition forces decimated their towns and villages.

The United Front opposition took a CNN crew to the Panjshir Valley, where more than 3,000 civilians have sought shelter at a dilapidated school. They fled their homes in August after the Taliban launched a much-anticipated offensive north of the capital.

One refugee named Mari said the Taliban "shot my husband and he fell down dead."

The Taliban rules about 90 percent of Afghanistan and is trying to control the remainder. The war-ravaged territory not under their control is led by ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his military chief, Ahmed Shah Massood.

After suffering initial defeats, the United Front announced in late October that it had recaptured two key provinces and advanced within 40 kilometers (24 miles) of its former stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Thousands of refugees followed in their wake, only to find that retreating Taliban fighters had burned crops, homes and entire villages to prevent the enemy from gaining "military installations."

The "scorched earth" policy placed the refugee burden on the United Front, who turned to the United Nations for help.

"There is no wheat, no food, no blankets," said one man seeking shelter at the school. "We are just sitting here." Others not lucky enough to find a sturdy roof camped under tents in other parts of the valley.

The United Nations and relief agencies are worried about a potential health epidemic and the approaching cold weather.

"The children have impetigo and diarrhea and the old men have chest problems," said Dr. Mohammad Shker, who helps treats more than 100 refugees each day.

Warm clothes and blankets have been distributed to nearly all the refugees, but food stockpiles aren't expected to last more than half the winter.

Fighting to the south has blocked the easiest route into the valley, forcing aid workers to drive two days northward over high mountain passes to reach the nearest airstrip. Heavy winter snowfall could very well block many of those roads as well.

U.N. officials hope to persuade refugees with homes to return to their villages so they can concentrate their efforts on those in more dire need of assistance.

"Those are the people we are trying to target to put them in shelters and give them enough food for the winter," said U.N. relief coordinator Fayyaz Shah.

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