Afghanistan's displaced dread the coming winter
By David Zucchino | Los Angeles Times | Published: December 6, 2012
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."
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 decade-long, 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 scarce 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.
Shakur says the ministry's emergency aid was too little too late last winter. And so far this year, the ministry has provided no aid, he says.
That's true, says Dr. Abdul Samad Hami, deputy minister of refugees and repatriations. The ministry has submitted a budget for aid for internally displaced people, he says, "but, unfortunately, the Finance Ministry didn't approve the budget."
The relief burden must fall instead on the U.N. and international relief organizations, Hami says.
Shakur, chewing a slimy gob of green snuff, says he'll believe it when he sees it.
So, too, says Mohammed Anwar, 35, the bald, burly, self-appointed head of a section of the much bigger Qambar Square refugee camp a few miles away.
"We get no help; we're forgotten, even in the winter, when people are dying," Anwar says. He stands, arms folded, beside an ancient stove where his children are stuffing plastic and cardboard into a sputtering fire.
Aschiana, a nongovernmental Afghan relief group, provided the camp with a well and two tiny schools - one for boys and one for girls - housed in tents, in accordance with government policies banning permanent structures. The teachers are themselves refugees, like Joma Khan, 21, who says he learned to read and write during his five years in the camp.
There are occasional deliveries of cooking oil, rice, flour and blankets by relief groups, Anwar says, but not enough for the camp's 5,000 to 6,000 people.
Anwar says his extended family of 16 people fled Helmand province four years ago. They were trapped, he says, between NATO coalition airstrikes and night raids on the one hand, and Taliban demands for food and shelter on the other.
Now Anwar ekes out a living selling snacks, vegetables and cigarettes on the shoulder of a highway that skirts the camp. Sometimes he and his male relatives find day labor jobs in Kabul.
He pulls out a thin clump of worn bills, bound by a rubber band. He flaps it against his belly. "This is all I earn. My wife wants money for cooking gas _ it's not enough."
Anwar looks down at his children. He has three sons and five daughters. Some attend the tent schools, he says. But on this day they are happily collecting trash to burn or begging from passing cars by tapping urgently on windshields and adopting pitiful poses.
Their hands and faces are stained black. "Look at them; they aren't really this black," Anwar says. "It's because they must live with dirt and trash."
Last winter, he says, more people would have died if several wealthy Afghan businessmen had not delivered food, fuel and blankets. This year, volunteers like Parween Omidi, a media worker in Kabul for the International Security Assistance Force - the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission in Afghanistan - have taken it upon themselves to provide help.
Omidi, an Afghan-American from Orange County, Calif., collected clothes, blankets, gloves, hats and school supplies for families at a displaced-persons camp called Chaman-e-Hozori. Escorted by a U.S. military security team, Omidi handed out bags of supplies to several dozen camp residents who had been driven to a school to accept the aid.
At the Parwan-a-Duh camp, Abdel Shakur nods in approval when told of the donations. But then he says, "That's fine for them, but we still have nothing."
He does not hold out hope that any aid will come to his camp from the ISAF. In fact, he says, it makes no difference to displaced people who rules the country, or whether international troops go or stay.
"We never see these foreign troops; we are invisible to them," Shakur says.
He says he has heard American combat troops are leaving in 2014. He shrugs at the thought, and turns back to tending his cows and sheep, whose hooves are smeared with their own manure.
"What does it matter?" he says. "After they leave, we will still be poor, and we will still be right here."