Bleak camp awaits flood of Afghan refugees

Sunday, July 28, 2002

ZHARE DASHT, Afghanistan -- Clouds of ochre dust swirled around U.N. officials as they surveyed a barren, sunbaked expanse where thousands of Afghan refugees are expected to live as soon as next week.

"This place is a surprise," Olara Otunnu, the U.N. envoy for children in conflict, said of the wretched site built by aid workers under duress to hold refugees who are shunned by Pakistan and unwelcome in many Afghan villages.

Zhare Dasht -- "yellow desert" in the Pashto language -- is severe and remote: it lies an hour's drive west of Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, down a bone-rattling road. The pervasive dust camouflages almost everything in sight, even rocks that mark areas where land mines have been removed.

But unlike in the ramshackle camps dotting the Pakistani border, mostly amounting to shelters built with blankets propped up by sticks, the people at Zhare Dasht will be given food, water and materials to build with.

The conditions facing people who could begin coming to the camp as early as next week reflect Afghanistan's struggle to cope with a huge wave of returning refugees.

Since the fall of the Taliban, more than 1.3 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan -- more than three times the number expected. The United Nations originally estimated that 400,000 of the estimated 4 million Afghans living abroad would return this year. However, 1.2 million have returned so far from Pakistan alone.

Many of the refugees expected at Zhare Dasht are ethnic Pashtuns who fled homes in the north and west of the country fearing reprisals from ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. Pashtuns say attacks are widespread in some areas by people angry over the harshness of the Taliban, the majority of whom were Pashtun.

Most of the people expected at the Zhare Dasht refugee camp will come from Chaman, a border town in Pakistan, and the nearby Afghan town of Spinboldak.

Pakistan, which has its own economic and security problems, has been reluctant to let Afghan refugees enter since the downfall of the Taliban last year. It says international aid organizations should help Afghans in their own country and not in Pakistan, where millions of refugees from two decades of war and a years-long drought already live.

Next week, tribal elders will visit Zhare Dasht to assess the conditions.

"If they go back and say it's fine, then we'll get 20,000 or 30,000 people," said Roy Olliff, an emergency coordinator for the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. "If they go back and say it's not fine, we may get 5,000 people, but we are more concerned about a flood of people than a lack of people coming."

Refugees also will be given seeds for planting crops on land plots of about 5,000 square feet.

Many areas were looked at for the refugee settlement. Originally, one of the ideas was to relocate small groups of people near villages so there could be some integration, Olliff said, but the villages objected.

"They were worried (the refugees) would come in and use scarce resources and would undercut whatever chance there was for employment," Olliff said.

Other spots were looked at, but most of them needed long-term demining projects. "This was virtually mine-free," he said.

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