QUETTA, Pakistan -- In the biggest single-day refugee influx of the two-week U.S.-led air assault on Afghanistan, an estimated 5,000 people -- most of them ragged, frightened and bringing with them only what they could carry -- streamed through a desolate border crossing into Pakistan on Saturday.
Crying children, women covered head-to-toe in veils and dust, hobbling old men and a few younger ones swathed in bandages -- all joined in an exodus from Afghanistan that humanitarian officials said represented only a tiny fraction of the number who might flee in coming weeks if fighting intensifies and hunger grows sharper and more widespread.
This human flood at the Chaman border crossing came despite the fact that the frontier -- officially, anyway -- remained closed to refugees.
Pakistan insisted that only those with valid travel documents were being allowed in. But large numbers were believed to be traveling with papers either procured from relatives in Pakistan or obtained from smugglers -- at a price.
Hardship cases were allowed through at the discretion of Pakistani border guards -- and Taliban authorities on the other side. Only a few fighting-age men could be seen among the crowds; the vast majority were women, children and the elderly.
They passed through in groups divided by gender; before they crossed over, the Taliban, seen only as distant figures moving under their pure-white flag, first separated men from women.
In the chaos, some were separated from family members. A little boy, perhaps 4, sobbed while some Pakistani guards tried to console him. His father had been either held on the other side, or opted not to try to cross.
Many of those crossing were from Kandahar, the nearest major Afghan city, 125 miles to the northwest. A Taliban stronghold, the city has been pounded repeatedly by airstrikes since the U.S.-led bombardment began on Oct. 7.
"A lot of people are injured in Kandahar," said a bandaged man crossing at Chaman, who identified himself only as Abdullah. "The Taliban are off someplace safe -- it is the ordinary people who are suffering."
Because those crossing over are not officially designated as refugees, they are not entitled to benefits from international agencies or the Pakistani government. Most, in keeping with tribal tradition that calls for sheltering even distant kin, are living with relatives on the Pakistani side in already crowded shantytowns and refugee camps.
26 in a room
"We were told of one family that had 26 people living in a single room," said Fatoumata Kaba, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who witnessed Saturday's influx.
Many refugees said they had sold all they had for a chance to escape Afghanistan, even knowing that their future in Pakistan is an uncertain one.
Bashir Ahmad, 29, another Kandahar man, said he could not afford to buy even a crust of bread to feed his family. "I am thinking to beg for my children," he said.
Although the borders were closed even before the bombardment began, the frontier is impossible to seal, and refugees are slipping across, many paying smugglers to guide them along mule tracks and footpaths. Some are being charged 2,000 Pakistani rupees, or $40 -- in a country where the average annual income is barely $200 a year.
Saturday's number was the biggest one-day crossing to date -- exceeding the arrival Friday of 3,500 people through Chaman -- but much larger influxes likely lie ahead, humanitarian officials said.
If the borders were opened, said Kaba, the UNHCR spokeswoman, up to 300,000 people might flood in "over a very short period of time" and arrivals could eventually total 1 million.
Pakistan, already home to more than 2 million refugees, has appealed to the international community for help in caring for them.