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Afghanistan's displaced dread the coming winter

The country has nearly half a million displaced people, many living in primitive camps where the cold weather will mean death for some.

December 01, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Five-year-old Agira is part of the family of Abdel Shakur, displaced Afghans from Laghman province. Now in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Kabul, the children collect trash to burn for cooking and warmth as winter approaches.
Five-year-old Agira is part of the family of Abdel Shakur, displaced Afghans… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

PARWAN-A-DUH CAMP, Afghanistan — Winter is descending on the Shakur clan.

In the pale gray twilight of late autumn, a sharp wind slaps at the scraps of plastic that Abdel Shakur, the clan patriarch, has installed on his mud hut walls in a futile attempt at insulation. The thin tarpaulins that serve as a roof are held fast by round patties of cow dung and worn auto tires.

Already, night temperatures are dipping to freezing or below. The 10 children of Abdel Shakur pad across the packed-clay floors in bare feet or plastic slippers. He pulls his wool wrap close around his bony shoulders.

"The snows are coming soon, and I'm afraid for the children," Shakur says. "When the snows come, people die."

PHOTOS: Displaced Afghans dread approaching winter

During last year's exceptionally brutal winter, at least 42 people died of exposure or starvation in Parwan-a-Duh and other makeshift camps on Kabul's shabby fringes, according to the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations. Almost all were children or elderly.

The French aid group Solidarites International puts the number higher, saying the cold killed more than 100 children alone in the numerous camps scattered in and around the capital.

Shakur, bearded and wizened at 47, says he lost his infant granddaughter, Parsima, last winter. The little girl grew weak and sickly before she was at last transported to a clinic, where she soon died.

Afghanistan is home to 460,000 internally displaced people, Afghans who have fled war, strife or famine in other parts of the country. More than 30,000 have settled in illegal camps around Kabul in search of jobs and shelter, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In a desperately poor country, the internally displaced are often among the most dispossessed, living in abject poverty in makeshift housing with little access to sanitation or medical care. They get only nominal help from the Afghan refugee ministry, and limited, though regular, assistance from the U.N. refugee agency and other aid groups.

Even after a decadelong, multibillion-dollar Western humanitarian relief effort, the displaced remain as miserable and wretched as ever. That was the case last winter, when emergency relief efforts were not mounted in earnest until February, well after the first children had died.

The Afghan government discourages the settlements and does not want them to become permanent, worrying that they will attract even more people. Thus camp residents are not eligible for most humanitarian assistance, or for education or medical care. Authorities have encouraged them to return to their home provinces by offering assistance and free land there.

Meanwhile, the U.N. refugee agency and international aid groups have vowed to provide enough assistance — particularly blankets, clothes, gloves, fuel and plastic sheeting — to prevent deaths from cold and exposure this winter.

Mohammad Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman, said the agency and other groups are providing emergency winter assistance for 240,000 internally displaced people. The agency has budgeted $2.8 million this year to assist internally displaced people year-round.

In Parwan-a-Duh, thin rivulets of raw sewage flow into low pits at the edge of homes thrown together from dried mud and clay, bricks, tarps and plastic sheeting. Water must be pumped from a well dug by aid workers and ferried home in plastic jugs.

Firewood is scare and expensive, so the huts are heated by burning trash and plastic collected by children whose hands are stained black with grime. From each hut, blue curls of acrid smoke rise to the overcast skies, contributing to the pall of dust and auto fumes that hangs like a shroud over the city.

Shakur has a steady source of fuel: dried manure from the 20 sheep and two cows he maintains in return for a small daily payment from local butchers. But the burning dung raises an awful stench, and the neighbors complain.

Shakur says the original camp was forcibly moved two years ago from an adjacent plot, where two new apartment towers have since risen. Their blue glass windows glint in the brittle afternoon sunshine. Well-to-do Afghan residents of the apartments gaze down at a vast expanse of tattered huts and garbage.

"They look at us with hate; they close their noses against the smell," Shakur says. "They tell us: 'Go away! You are filthy people!'"

He shrugs. "But where can we go?"

Shakur's clan of 20 Pashtun families fled Laghman province, where he says Taliban insurgents threatened to kill anyone who didn't give shelter and food to the fighters. The families had precious little food to spare, he says, and feared they would be killed. They retreated to Kabul nearly five years ago.

But Shakur also says the clan came to the capital in search of work; the Afghan refugee ministry contends that many among the internally displaced are economic, not war, refugees.

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