Abdul Jabbar wants to die. Squatting beside his wife's unconscious body, his 12 children and grandchildren huddled around him in a tiny, open tent of sticks and stitched sacks, the 65-year-old brushes away tears as he describes his prospects in the coming Afghan winter. Freezing rain and snow will cover the Dehdadi camp on the southern outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif, home to 15,000 refugees. Temperatures will drop to 5[degrees]F, and the filthy roadside ditch from which the refugees fetch their gray fetid water will freeze.
Already the ground is too hard to dig graves. Instead, the bodies of those killed by starvation, dehydration, disease or exposure are covered with earth and weighed down with stones against dust storms. During the summer, Abdul Jabbar sold for food all his family's clothes that weren't rags. Now his children can't sleep because of the cold, unless, like his wife beside him, they faint from hunger. So Abdul Jabbar hopes death will end their agony--and quickly, as it did for his son Jaan Mohammed, 12, who stepped on a land mine while collecting firewood. "We are already dying," Abdul Jabbar says. "I just want to die once instead of this dying a little every day. The Americans should have bombed us as well."
This is Afghanistan's hidden refugee crisis. The country's despair has left more than a quarter of its 26 million people in need of food. The desperate and malnourished refugees who get to camps on the border with Pakistan are the lucky ones. In the north, hundreds of thousands are trapped behind front lines in the remote and barren central highlands. Tens of thousands more are in western Afghanistan.
After three years of drought, five years of failed harvests and 22 years of war, the refugees have exhausted their meager savings and killed their livestock. In August the camps around Mazar-i-Sharif had a two-week supply of food. After Sept. 11 all aid was suspended as agencies withdrew; 230 have died in Dehdadi since then. Others have fled into the frozen mountains rather than live in a war zone. Without food or water, many have surely perished. Now, with the Taliban's retreat, the way to better-supplied camps near Pakistan is open--but many of the refugees are too weak and poor to make it. "A lot of them are going to die," says Stephan Goetghebuer of Medecins sans Frontieres. "The children and the old first, then the others."
In a bitter irony, thousands of tons of food, clothes and medicine are stockpiled about 100 miles away, across the border in Uzbekistan. But that country's bureaucracy, which fears an influx of refugees and Islamic radicals, has managed to keep all but a few hundred tons from moving into Afghanistan. Aid that did get across, either from Uzbekistan or from Turkmenistan to the west, had to go through a gauntlet before it helped those who needed it most. Agencies have to pay a "tax" to a military commander around every mountain pass. Pilfering is rife; Alliance soldiers and local aid workers divert much of the food, medicine and blankets to their families or to bazaars. To speed up the deliveries, aid workers plan to have hundreds of French soldiers secure a "humanitarian corridor" from Uzbekistan to Mazar-i-Sharif. But the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan brings its own difficulties. When word of the French reached Mazar-i-Sharif's bazaar, young men ran to fetch their guns to fight the "invaders."