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Afghan Refugees in Fight for Lives

War: Families fleeing to safety instead often find only misery and death for their children.


MAHKAKI CAMP, Afghanistan — Her leg is no fatter than a thumb from hunger and illness. Idema is already treated as a ghost by her family.

"She'll be dead soon. You can feel death in her waiting to take over," her uncle says as he caresses the 4-year-old. He is resigned. Almost detached.

His clan has been through much: fleeing into the mountains around the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar when the U.S.-led bombing began, then taking to the road, he says, after the Taliban moved military equipment into residential areas.

They spent 10 days traveling by foot and truck across southern Afghanistan chasing rumors that Iran had set up refugee camps near the border. They arrived too late. There was no more room in the 1,000 tents at Mahkaki, about 1 1/4 miles from the border on a merciless plain of scrub and talc-fine dust.

More of the war's outcasts straggle in every day, joining Idema's family and thousands of others living without shelter outside the camp.

Some live in shallow holes scratched from the bleached desert. They cover themselves with blankets when frequent dust storms kick up.

Idema's family was able to fashion a hovel from sticks and torn plastic sheets. It is here they expect her brief life to end.

"We are calling the little ones like her 'children of the dust,' " says her uncle, Qolam Sarvar. "They will just blow away like the dust. They are just too weak for this misery."

He places Idema on her feet. She wobbles and then collapses. Dysentery and fever have left her no heavier than an infant. She no longer cries or fidgets. She stares blankly from eyes caked with pus.

Her family has given up hope of finding help from the camp's lone doctor. The wait can be days and the medicines are just rudimentary.

Idema's hand drops from her uncle's shoulder. A tiny green bracelet slides off her bony wrist into the dust.

While the world's aid groups struggle with a crush of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, signs of another crisis take shape at the frontier across from the Iranian town of Zabol.

Afghans have begun streaming toward two camps run by the Iranian Red Crescent Society, seeking to stay out of the way of the war. Washington says it is not targeting civilians in its attacks on the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The smaller camp, called Mille 46 on a rocky plateau held by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, is at about half of its 500-family capacity. But at least 20 new families arrive each day.

In Mahkaki, controlled by the Taliban, the tents are crammed with nearly 7,000 people. About 3,000 more live on the fringes. About one child a day died during the past week, medical staff say. The culprits are varied: respiratory infections, dysentery, malnutrition.

"The situation just couldn't get any more bleak," said Dr. Behrouz Chegini, the only full-time physician at the camp.

Iran has begged for international assistance. Only a few have answered. Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, has started work at Mille 46 and plans to enter Mahkaki any day now.

Some of the hesitancy in the aid response can be traced back to Iran's own policies, relief officials say.

Iran has sealed its 600-mile border and has refused U.N. appeals to allow refugee camps on its territory, claiming it cannot handle any more. More than 2 million Afghans already live in Iran--many refugees from the 1979-89 war against Soviet invaders.

Iran's decision forces aid groups into the difficult position of coordinating with both the Taliban and its foes during wartime. An additional complication is Iran's open backing for the Northern Alliance.

Taliban forces have refused to allow refugees to move from their territory to the better conditions in Mille 46, said Danial Mullahi, in charge of political and security affairs in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchestan province.

"The Taliban may be trying to politically exploit the situation," he said. "The humanitarian situation is very bad now. The people just can't stand any more misery."

The youngest have a special suffering.

Large families are the norm for Afghans. The children's small footprints are everywhere in the fine dust of Mahkaki.

The ones who are still healthy try to play when they can: a game of marbles using sheep bones, or flying kites fashioned from plastic bags. The hungry ones pick through garbage for scraps and lick the remains from the cans of beans distributed as part of the meager food rations.

The sick children can only wail or cough violently.

"Please be calm," begs a mother, Totia, while stroking the brown hair of her 6-month-old daughter. The girl has bloody diarrhea. Totia--who uses one name like many Afghans--arrived before dawn outside the medical tent. By midday there are still dozens of sick children ahead in line, some cradled by pregnant mothers.

"We have nothing," she pleads. "No medicine. No food for the children. Tell me, will my family die here?"

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