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America's New War: Brewing Refugee Crisis

Aired October 1, 2001 - 05:01   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, around Afghanistan, and in Pakistan now there is a brewing refugee problem.

CNN's Mike Chinoy filed this report just moments ago.


MIKE CHINOY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a dusty river bed under a relentless sun sits the Jalazi (ph) refugee camp, home to 60,000 people. Most fled the fighting and famine in Afghanistan before September 11. Now, more are on the way. They're arriving, as we did, to a scene of misery and desperation. Yet the U.N. fears that over a million more may be risking their lives to reach places like this.

Medina Mohammed Aslam (ph), a widow, and her three children arrived from Kabul last Friday. Now, they're living in this threadbare tent, surviving on emergency rations from the World Food Program. I was afraid of war, she says. That's why we left. We paid someone to smuggle us across the border on mules. We had no food or water for four days.

With more than two million Afghans already in this country fleeing two decades of misery across the border, Pakistan doesn't want these people. In the hope of discouraging new refugees, the government stopped registering those arriving from Afghanistan in early August. Yet they come. For aid workers like Roy Olliff of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the new influx fueled by the September 11 attack has turned what was already a crisis into a catastrophe.

(on camera): Compared with what you and your colleagues have seen elsewhere, how bad are the conditions here? How do they stack up compared with other crises?

ROY OLLIFF, UNHCR: I think it's probably fairly well recognized by most of the humanitarian aid people that this is one of the worst situations that we've ever seen in a crisis situation.


OLLIFF: Well, the people were struggling as it was and they've been through a lot and then they came here and they're absolutely jammed together. You can see the conditions of some of the tents here. There's very, very little, very little shelter. When they first came here it was freezing cold and there was a problem of hypothermia and then as the months went by then it became extremely hot and there was the problem of dehydration.

CHINOY (voice-over): A few minutes from Jalazi is another camp called Shamshatu (ph). All its 60,000 residents arrived well before September 11. Pakistan has accepted them as legitimate refugees, a status reflected in their somewhat less squalid living conditions. There are regular supplies of water and food, even a school, in tents provided by UNICEF, for some of the youngsters.

Yet the trauma of what's been happening in Afghanistan is never far away. In my village, there was heavy fighting, says Mohammed Naveed (ph), holding his grandson, Abdul Malik (ph), and there was no water and no bread.

Mohammed Madjwan (ph) showed us his wounds. He was caught in crossfire between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. I was hit four times in the hand and twice in the chest, he says. The bullets in my chest are still there. I don't have the money to have them removed.

As the political maneuvering over Afghanistan's future continues, it was clear the people we spoke with cared less about who runs the country than whether it will be safe to go back. I will return home, says Medina Mohammed Aslam, but only when peace has been restored.

Afghanistan was facing a humanitarian disaster long before the terrorist attacks in the U.S. But those events turned the plight of the Afghans into an international crisis. Still, it may be a long time before the refugees here can go home.


CHINOY: Plane loads of relief supplies are now beginning to arrive here in Pakistan from all over the world and earlier on this day the World Food Program began packing up 1,000 metric tons of food supplies that they hope to ship across the border into Afghanistan, where the situation is even worse -- Leon.

HARRIS: Well, Mike, I want to ask you about that. What do we know about the situation in Afghanistan? I know you're in Peshawar right now. You're on the other side of the border. But what do we know about the conditions over there and what do we know about what's being done to keep any supplies that may go in there from only going to the Taliban and not to those who really need it?

CHINOY: Aid agencies are hugely worried about the situation inside Afghanistan. One U.N. official described it as a terrible situation that is getting even worse. The aid officials say that there are up to six million Afghans in desperate straits and they simply don't know what's going on now. Of course, Afghanistan had suffered from a terrible drought for several years and there were acute food shortages, near famine conditions in parts of the country even before this current crisis. So at the moment there are large numbers of displaced people moving around Afghanistan. Because of the restrictions imposed by the Taliban as a result of this crisis, the aid agencies who were gearing up at the end of the summer for heightened relief efforts inside the country have, instead, been forced to scale back. They simply don't know where these people are. They don't know how they're doing. They're desperately worried that people who fled the cities to take refuge with friends or relatives in the countryside are proving to be an intolerable burden, going to villages that were already living on the margin, and now they're worried that even the villagers who might have been able to survive before are in deep trouble.

Moreover, time is beginning to be a real concern. In a month or six weeks, the Afghan winter is going to set in. There are whole sections of the country that will be blocked off by the snow and if aid is not gotten to people in those areas before then, you could have a disaster of really unimaginable proportions.

The aid agencies are trying to get food shipments into Kabul. There is a concern, though, that the Taliban authorities might try and use the food as a political weapon, using it to rally people to the side of the Taliban, this at a time when there are growing indications of discontent towards the Taliban among the Afghan population and defections from the Taliban.

Nonetheless, the aid agencies feel they have no choice but to try and get something across the border because you're literally talking four, five, six million people at risk -- Leon.

HARRIS: Mike, one final question. I know that the people that you talked to in your report said that they were willing to stay there in Pakistan in that refugee camp until peace was restored or order was restored in their country, Afghanistan. But how long could that possibly be? I mean are these people prepared to stay there for weeks, months, years, what?

CHINOY: Well, you know, you go around and you meet the Afghans who live in this area, and of course Pakistan has over two million Afghan refugees. I've met people who came here in 1980 thinking they would come for a few months while the issue of the Russian invasion was sorted out and then they'd go back and they're still here. And their children have been born here. And their grandchildren have been born here.

These people don't have the slightest idea. They all would like to go back. None of them really care about politics, these ordinary men and women and children. They just want the basic fundamentals for a minimal, safe existence.

I talked to somebody who supported the Taliban, I talked to somebody who supported the Northern Alliance, but in the end they all said the same thing -- we don't really care who's running the country as long as we can go home and survive.

At the moment, unfortunately, the trend seems to be in the opposite direction. The only real silver lining here would be if this situation develops in such a way, according to a lot of the people I've been speaking to, that the Taliban leadership is deposed and some kind of coalition comes to power that will allow an enormous international relief effort, perhaps under the umbrella of the U.N., that would begin to permit some of these people to go back. But at the moment, that's not happening and there's no sign it's going to happen any time in the immediate future -- Leon.

HARRIS: Mike Chinoy reporting to us from a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Thank you very much for that snapshot of the mounting despair there.

We should add that coming up later on this hour, we're going to be speaking with a representative from the United Nations, the U.N. agencies that are committed, looking to get some aid into both that Pakistan region as well as Afghanistan. We'll get some more on that particular angle on the story




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