For the forgotten Afghans, the UN offers a fresh hell

By Robert Fisk

07 August 2002

In Afghanistan, it is possible to go from hell to

hell. The first circle of hell is the Waiting Area,

the faeces-encrusted dustbowl in which 60,000 Afghans

rot along their frontier with Pakistan at Chaman ? a

bone-dry, sand-blasted place of patched bedouin tents,

skinny camels, infested blankets and skin disease.

There are laughing children with terrible facial

sores, old women of 30, white-bearded, dark-turbaned

men who from huts of dry twigs look with suspicion and

astonishment at Westerners.

They are a leftover of the last Afghan war, the one we

are supposed to believe is over, although they are

living proof that hostilities have not ended. At least

40,000 of the Pashtu refugees cannot go home because

their people are still persecuted in the north of the

country. But Pakistan no longer wants this riff-raff

of poor and destitute on its squeaky-clean border.

So the United Nations, that great saviour of the

dispossessed, has discovered another vile place for

these people. A second circle of hell, 40 miles west

of Kandahar, it is a grey, hot desert, reached through

minefields, shot through with blow-torch winds and

black stones, haunted by great, creased mountains and

fine sand hills that move like waves.

The United Nations has drilled wells for the 60,000 ?

boring more than 20 metres (60ft) for water ? yet few

UN officials can do more than shake their heads when

they stand in this future midden. It is called Zheray

Dasht ? "yellow desert" in Urdu ? because of the

flowers that carpet the sand after rain. But it hasn't

rained here for seven years.

Roy Oliff, of the UN High Commission for Refugees,

describes the decision-making to us with almost

teutonic efficiency as he stands amid this desolation.

"There is a political need to move them from Chaman:

they may not have a choice," he says. "This was the

only place the Afghan government would let us have. We

didn't get a choice. The local people on the main road

didn't want the displaced persons near their villages

in case they took away employment and used their

scarce water resources. This area is reasonably [sic]

free of mines. We're not anticipating much resistance.

If they get water and food, there'll be a flood of

people here, not resistance. Five thousand people will

be housed in 12 settlements."

Across the hard desert floor, hundreds of empty,

dark-brown tents flap in the wind. There are latrines

and vast tented reception areas and land for each

family on which ? if the water holds out in the

unending drought ? they can plant trees and graze

animals. "It takes them a week to build a mud-walled

home," Mr Oliff tells us. Note here the UN-speak.

No choice for the refugees. No choice for the UN.

Little resistance from the refugees. That's how the UN

talked in Bosnia as they aided the Serbs in their

ethnic cleansing by trucking Muslims from city to

city. It isn't Mr Oliff's fault. When I gently raise

the issue of the UN's collective conscience, always

supposing so sensitive a creature exists within the

world's most bureaucratic institution, he looks at me

with some distress. "Everyone involved in this project

has misgivings and is making the best of it," he says.

The truth, which is as scarce as water in

Afghan-istan, is that Pakistan has already severely

limited the ability of humanitarian workers in the

border camps and that the Afghan authorities in

Kandahar don't want the refugees too close to their

own city. There are quite a few Afghan-Arab families

in the frontier camps ? al-Qa'ida families among them

? and several Taliban sympathisers. Spin Boldak,

across the old Durrand line from Chaman, was the very

last stronghold of the black-turbaned misogynists last

December. The Afghans don't want them infecting

Kandahar again.

Mohammed Godbedin, of the UNHCR in Chaman, says at

least 50 Afghan-Arab families came to the local camps

? ("They all came together, not individually," he

says) although many of these families existed long

before the days of al-Qa'ida. The remainder of the

refugees are Kochi, nomads whose livestock died in the

drought, and who never had homes. In a few days, the

first of the displaced of Chaman and Spin Boldak will

be taken to visit the Yellow Desert, to decide for

themselves if they are prepared to move.

But this is a mere ritual. Pakistani and Afghan

officials will make the final decision, with the UN's

familiar compliance. The refugee leaders will be

trucked to the Kandahar-Herat desert highway, then led

along a sand trail marked by red and white rocks. On

either side of these markers are land-mines left by

the mujahedin during the war against the Soviet

occupation. "They are vehicle mines, not

anti-personnel mines so they won't blow up under

people," one UN official says helpfully.

Unless, of course, the refugees acquire a clapped-out

lorry and drive on the wrong side of the markers.

Beyond a former Russian military fortress, its tank

revetments still evident amid the grey muck, the

desert flattens. This is where the land is

"reasonably" clear of mines. And where the UN has

built its new refugee camp.

Things might be different if the warlord battles ended

in the north, if the Americans allowed the

international peace-keeping forces to move out of

Kabul and collect the weapons in the north and damp

down the ethnic fires. More than half the frontier

refugees could then go back to their homes. But

Afghanistan is becoming more lawless by the week.

Refugees remain the linguistic definition of much of

this country. And the Yellow Desert, the latest UN

prison for the 60,000 destitute of Chaman and Spin

Boldak, will soon be on all our maps.


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