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Desperate, Defenseless Refugees Find Only a New Kind of Misery in Camp

The displaced: Families are marooned in filthy, hopeless conditions between Afghan and Pakistani border posts where they beg for entry to a U.N. facility.


CHAMAN, Pakistan — There are scores of Afghan refugee camps along the Pakistani border, each filled with lost and hopeless people. But the makeshift transit camp at the Chaman border post defines a new level of misery for people whose only crime is being trapped by war.

Marooned in the strip of land between Pakistani and Afghan border posts, they have gone as far as they can without officially entering Pakistan.

Some have actually spilled over the coiled concertina wire that serves as Pakistan's first line of defense.

Here they sit and wait, defenseless and desperate, bewildered orphans covered with the fine brown dust that swirls off the vast Afghan plain and settles into every pore.

The Chaman transit camp is not big by Afghan standards. Hardly 1,000 people waited there earlier this week. But in the jumble of donkey carts, crudely bundled possessions and human flotsam, the full depth of Afghanistan's agony was on display.

It was the toddler with matted hair and pleading eyes, gasping as a child does when it can cry no more, standing in a tiny pool of her own diarrhea.

It was the exhausted mother, beyond caring, who had nothing left to offer her little one but a halfhearted slap to gain some quiet.

It was the tear-streaked cheeks of an infant, lying in the dirt, its face barely visible beneath a coating of flies.

It was also clear in the thinly concealed panic of the male elders, fearful that someone would order them and their families back into the hell from which they came.

A foreign journalist who walked into the camp earlier this week was surrounded within seconds by scores of anxious faces.

"Take our names," begged a dirt-coated young man named Saeed Shah. "Help us, please."

"We can't get our names on the list," added a clearly desperate male elder named Haji Mohammed. "Talk to someone, otherwise they will send us back."

Mohammed said he had arrived from the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar seven days before, driven out by American airstrikes and the disintegration of law and order.

He said that those in the camp with money and sharp elbows were being allowed to pass into the relative luxury of a United Nations refugee tent camp barely 100 yards away inside Pakistan.

Possessing neither, he was stuck.

"Those who are shy or have no money don't have a chance," he said.

He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his breast pocket on which someone had written a brief note declaring the number of family members with him. The number was 67.

"I have 14 family members," said the man standing next to Mohammed in a crush of people. "Write my name."

Another male voice shouted that he had 50 family members.

"Give us shelter, we have nothing to eat," the voice demanded.

Many of those with large families were Kuchi nomads, whose migration pattern had been derailed by drought as well as war.

Amid the camp's confusion and degradation, stories also emerged of quiet acts of grace.

A handsome youth named Allahuddin Alakuzai, for example, had walked about 150 miles to Chaman from his home in Helmand province, west of Kandahar.

He had carried his disabled younger brother, Bhaudin, on his back, and shepherded his mother, Khansada.

Near a corner of the camp's barbed-wire perimeter fence, the stronger of the refugees pressed toward a small opening, kept at bay by occasional whacks of bamboo sticks wielded by Pakistani border scouts.

Zahriah Nasir, a representative from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, said there were no lists, no formal selection process--or bribes accepted--to bring refugees into the U.N. camp.

"There's no discrimination going on," he said. "No one is playing favorites here."

Occasionally, those with obvious special needs managed to get through.

Alakuzai, with his brother on his back and his mother trailing behind, fought his way to the gate to begin the screening process and was handled immediately once he got there.

Every few minutes, a family group of up to five or six was allowed through to start an efficient bureaucratic process and medical check that within half an hour led to a place in the U.N. camp.

Relief workers in Mercy Corps sweatshirts sat at small folding tables, noting the family name of each group, along with its number of male and female members and how many were 5 and under.

Each family received a stamped paper that before the day was out allowed it to receive a tent, plastic sheeting, blankets, food, a kitchen set, a cooker and a small jerrycan of gasoline.

The conditions were still harsh, but luxurious compared to the transit camp.

Confusion and uncertainty remained with refugees in the tent camp, but the sense of panic had eased.

At the end of one of the neat rows of freshly pitched U.N. canvas shelters, a newly arrived refugee spread out his prayer rug in the early afternoon dust and could be heard uttering a soft prayer:

"Thank you, God, for giving me this tent."

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