Afghanistan: Special report on displaced people in the south

ZHARE DASHT, 19 February (IRIN) - A cloud of flies erupts from Nasruddin's wheelbarrow as he holds up the stomach lining of a cow he is trying to sell. "Would you eat this? I have to feed this to my son," he told IRIN in the Zhare Dasht camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), 30 km west of the southern city of Kandahar.
Six months after the controversial site was opened, the camp is home to nearly 27,000 IDPs, with most having no option but to stay in the harsh desert environment. For some, drought means they have nowhere to shift to, but for many the main barrier to moving on is the insecurity elsewhere in the country.

People like Nasruddin were desperate to get away from their homes. He is one of thousands of ethnic Pashtuns who fled northern Afghanistan a year ago. They claim they were harassed, robbed and threatened by Uzbeks and Tajiks who wanted revenge after five years of war with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.

Born in Meymaneh, southwest of the main northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, Nasruddin said the different ethnic groups had lived happily together in the past, but the Uzbeks obtained many weapons after the fall of the Taliban and used them to intimidate the Pashtuns.

"We will never forget the cruel treatment and having to leave our homes. How would you like it if I took you from your comfortable car and put you in a tent here? How would you feel?" Many of the escaping Afghans fled to the Pashtun-dominated south, ending up in camps at Spin Buldak near the southeastern border with Pakistan.

With the Afghan government and aid agencies concerned over conditions and security there, most were then moved to the new, supposedly temporary, camp at Zhare Dasht, only to endure more misery. Since October, 11,000 individuals have been relocated from the Spin Buldak camps, but the convoys ground to a halt after Eid. Another 15,000 people had been repatriated to their homes elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Prior to the opening of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) administered camp at Zhare Dasht, human rights activists, journalists and some NGOs had complained about the location of the new site, describing it as being in the middle of a minefield, leaving those in the camp totally dependent on aid.

While an extensive mine-education programme has seen that danger minimised, the main problem facing those arriving at the camp is the lack of work. Each family receives 50 kg of wheat, 10 litres of heating fuel, five litres of cooking oil, four bars of soap and 12 kg of lentils a month from the UNHCR, but many still struggle to make ends meet, according to camp residents.

A UNHCR spokeswoman, Maki Shinohara, told IRIN in the capital, Kabul, that the issue of the displaced Pashtuns was political as well as humanitarian, with militias controlling large areas of the country. "It's still chaotic. There is a rule of gun up in the north," she said, adding that it was a question of how the government could bring peace and security to the area so Pashtuns felt it was safe to return. "To unravel the past history of hatred is going to take some time."

Disarmament, along with the provision of proper jobs, were vital to solving the problem, but she estimated it would take years before many Pashtuns would leave the south for their homes.

Some issues around security in the north are being addressed. UNHCR has been able to help establish a commission involving the government and northern authorities looking at claims of harassment and land confiscation in the north.

But many NGOs are adamant that until the security situation in Afghanistan is dealt with, it will be extremely difficult to get people to move on from the camps. "I don't see the overwhelming majority of people moving for a couple of years unless there's a much bigger effort to put into other strategies," Cassandra Nelson, the senior media and communications officer for Mercy Corps, told IRIN from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. She said many places had been bombed out, had no water, animals or education, and NGOs and donors had to address these and other problems.

But security, which Nelson said had got much worse in the last few months, remains the major concern. She said it would be a decade before the Afghan government had an army and police force that could provide security, so in the interim the job had to be done by international forces and neutral peacekeepers.

With 90 percent of the country still run by militias with no loyalty to the central government, not only were groups like the northern Pashtuns likely to remain displaced but aid agencies would have to struggle to implement programmes.

Seventy five-year-old Hazrat, who escaped from his home in the northwestern province of Faryab with his wife and four children, but no possessions, now worries he could die in the camp at Zhare Dasht. "This shouldn't have happened to me. We are six people and have one tent. It's a disaster. But I am not angry. I can't do anything. I'm tired of this, I'm sad. God can deal with them," he lamented.

Gul Sahib's house in Faryab Province was also looted and he lost 1,600 sheep when vengeful Uzbeks raided his home following the fall of the Taliban. With his seven children, he headed towards Pakistan, but ended up in a camp at Spin Buldak before being shifted to Zhare Dasht.

"Even with the problems here, at least we are safe, thank God," he told IRIN. However, he said finding work was very hard. "At the moment we have no hopes, because there is no peace in our homes. If there is peace we will see. If it stays like this, with fighting, we will never go back," he said standing outside his UNHCR-donated tent. In a sign that he is settling in for the long term, Sahib has been making mud bricks to build a semi-permanent house.

Back near the border with Pakistan at Spin Buldak camp, conditions remain bleak for the 30,000-odd inmates. Some are there because of the four-year drought, some are Kuchi nomad IDPs who have no chance of resuming their wandering lifestyle.

Despite the hardships, many IDPs are reluctant to move from Spin Buldak, as it is seen as a better location for employment opportunities, and UNHCR's Shinohara maintained that movement from the Spin Buldak camps remained voluntary. "The government doesn't want people there, but a lot of the people can't go home at the moment," she said. A spell of extremely bad weather in December had ironically seen people staying at Spin Buldak because more aid was being distributed there.

Despite clinics being run by Medecins Sans Frontieres, (MSF) and supplementary feeding programmes from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), health was becoming more of a problem, and schools had closed down, leaving children with no access to education.

But sitting in the four-metre by two-metre tent he shares with seven other family members, Nematullah told IRIN in Spin Buldak that he could not move to Zhare Dasht because he had run up debts of nearly US $200 with local doctors and shopkeepers. "We would like to go, but until we find some money or jobs it is not possible."

He estimated that about three-quarters of the people in the border camps were in a similar situation. Many had sold the blankets, quilts and heating stoves they had been given by UNHCR to pay for other things.

Forced to move to the camp when the well in his village dried up a year ago, Nematullah explained that the country's devastating drought had pushed people from his village to move to the border and said daily life was becoming increasingly difficult. The tents offered little protection from the cold and occasional rain, and there was often not enough food for all his family. "We are getting just enough to stay alive - or stay somewhere between being alive and dead," he said. But more than anything, what they wanted was for the drought to end. "With rain, we can solve 95 percent of our problems," he added.

Aid agencies are trying to concentrate long-term efforts on Zhare Dasht. "Eventually, support to the Spin Buldak camps will come to an end," Douglas Higgins, the UNICEF programme officer in Kandahar, told IRIN.

UNICEF had dug wells, distributed shoes, set up schools and was providing feeding and nutrition for women and young children, as well as vaccination programmes. Higgins said children had died during a cold snap in December due to a mixture of acute respiratory infections and diarrhoea.

While the extraordinarily icy temperatures may have had some effect, the deaths could not be attributed to these alone, Higgins said. However, he believed that improved health services could have prevented some deaths.

There was also often no local network of trained medical people who could use resources and cope with the needs. "It was an incredible cold snap and we were caught off guard," he added.

Meanwhile, those at Zhare Dasht are unlikely to go home until they feel they will be safe in the north or until the drought situation improves.

"We cannot live here. Please, take the guns from the Uzbeks if you really want to help. Everyone is trying to take power in Afghanistan. The warlords should hand over their weapons to [President Hamid] Karzai, take their pattoos [blankets] and go back to being normal men. We can't fight back - we don't even have enough food to eat," Nasruddin pleaded.


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