Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - Dark side of the moon

The civil war has reached even the most remote parts of Afghanistan. When fighting spread to Badghis province last year, efforts to help the displaced proved particularly difficult

The civil war has reached even the most remote parts of Afghanistan. When fighting spread to Badghis province last year, efforts to help the displaced proved particularly difficult.

By Arafat Jamal

It is one of the most remote spots on earth. A harsh, empty lunar landscape stretches unendingly into the distance. Semi-nomadic Afghans, known as Koochies, graze herds of camels and goats on the dusty wastes in a ritual of nature unchanged for centuries. There are no major roads, just a few rutted dirt tracks carved out by the perpetual movements of the herds. If anything of significance does happen in the north-western Afghan province of Badghis, it may take days, weeks or even months for word to filter to the outside world.

The civil war which has engulfed much of the rest of the country swept across Badghis in the second half of last year. The fighting was vicious and many of the inhabitants, primarily Pashtun Koochies, fled for their lives. At first aid workers heard only whispers - of the fighting and of populations on the move. It was not until streams of exhausted people, carrying few possessions but many tales of their suffering, reached Herat, the principal city in western Afghanistan, that the world began to learn of this latest humanitarian crisis.

Provincial officials and humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR braced to help the estimated 40,000 people on the move. "The situation in Badghis is worse than Ethiopia in 1984" one local official insisted. That was an obvious exaggeration. Several million people perished in eastern Africa in that famine, but the situation in Badghis was, nevertheless, critical.

Afghanistan's harsh winter was closing in, threatening the lives of the displaced still in Badghis. Luckily, perhaps, UNHCR was able to intervene decisively. Several camps in the Herat region had already been established to accommodate Afghan refugees returning from Iran, but at this time they were mostly empty and were quickly reopened for the Badghisis. When these camps filled, UNHCR and the local repatriation department established the Shaidai camp on the outskirts of Herat. ICRC set up two more camps and NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières, Médecins du Monde and an Afghan NGO opened clinics.

The people who reached these camps were the lucky ones. They received shelter, food and blankets. But as winter snows swept the region, passes through the Safed Koh mountains which link Badghis and Herat became impassable, trapping pockets of displaced people in the deep drifts. In February, UNHCR and WFP sent a 28-truck convoy to the region. It often stalled in snow banks and sank in mud lakes, but it did succeed in delivering food, biscuits and blankets to marooned pockets of people.

One old woman saved herself by snuggling deeply into a gunny sack stuffed with straw. A group of men, typical of so many lost groups, reached a distribution centre after a two-day struggle through huge snow drifts. Families survived on boiled water and bread scraps. Even as the convoy helped an estimated 13,000 people, new fighting erupted. Warplanes bombed the provincial capital of Qala-i-Nau and additional waves of people fled their homes deeper into the forbidding countryside or through the stormy Sabzak Pass to reach Herat.

By mid summer, some 25,000 Badghisis remained displaced in Herat, receiving local and international help. Some have erected protective mud walls around their tents, signifying a degree of permanence to their suffering. Most, however, insist they want to go home as soon as their security can be guaranteed. Given the unpredictable nature of the internal situation, that may not be for a very long time.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)