Aid groups offer little help in Afghanistan

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

DASHTI-ARZANA, Afghanistan -- Children dug through the dusty, unforgiving soil around the Dashti-Arzana refugee camp on Monday for roots to use for firewood. Their mothers turned a few onions and murky water into a runny soup for dinner. Their fathers pleaded for international aid.

About 4,500 Afghan families live in this refugee camp near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, most of whom fled fighting between the Taliban and opposition fighters last summer and fall.

Two months ago the Red Cross brought each family a sack of wheat, four cans of cooking oil and firewood. And the refugees say they haven't seen anything since.

As overnight temperatures drop below freezing, families huddle under plastic tarps whipped by the winds that rush across the barren surrounding fields.

During the day, 13-year-old Saib Jamal Gulamhussein pounds into the earth to search for roots. Teen-agers gather leaves, grass and chunks of sheep manure to dry in the sun and burn beneath their mothers' rusty cooking pots.

Some parents send their children to a nearby highway to beg, though it's nearly devoid of vehicles.

Most children are sniffly and coughing, and all are malnourished. One girl sat picking nits from her sister's hair, but lice is so rampant that it is unlikely to make much of a difference.

The Taliban are long gone from their hometowns. Most of the refugees are from the city of Faizabad, 120 miles to the east.

But they stay here because they know aid groups are not far, in Mazar-e-Sharif, nine miles away.

They fear there is little or nothing to go home to. They assume their homes have been looted, their sheep and goats long dead or stolen or slaughtered. Besides, they say, they don't have money for the trip home.

Here, at least, there is hope.

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