New desert camp of last resort opens to Pashtun, Kuchi refugees

Saturday, August 17, 2002

ZHARE DASHT, Afghanistan -- Cloaked in billowing clouds of blinding sand, the United Nation's newest refugee camp has opened in the midst of a vast, forbidding desert.

But for Ghulam Haider and tens of thousands of others forced from their homes by ethnic tensions in northern and western Afghanistan, this is their only option -- their new home of last resort.

"There are no villages, no houses, no trees around here. But we are poor people. We have no choice," said Haider, 61, an ethnic Pashtun farmer from northern Afghanistan. "There is nowhere else to go."

The camp in Zhare Dasht, which means "yellow desert" in the Pashto language, was established to house about 60,000 refugees currently living in a "no man's land" in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Denied entry by Pakistan, which claims it cannot support them, the refugees have been living for months in squalid and desperate conditions. Most of them are Pashtuns who fled persecution by Tajiks and Uzbeks after the collapse of the Taliban which was predominately Pashtun.

The others are nomadic shepherds, known here as Kuchis, who have been left destitute by the four-year drought.

Together, they form a growing tide of displaced people within Afghanistan, severely straining resources already overburdened by a flood of 1.3 million returnees who fled to Pakistan and Iran during the 23 years of war.

The U.N. estimates 400,000 to 500,000 "internally displaced" people in the southern provinces alone.

The severity of the problem has lead to tough choices -- in this case, government pressure to move refugees from the border resulted in the location of the newest camp, which some worry cannot adequately sustain so many refugees.

"This was the best choice we had, compared to the other alternatives," said Abdulkadir Jama, head of the U.N. refugee agency in Kandahar. Other sites were more heavily mined or else were rejected by local communities.

Refugees will be given materials to build their homes, as well as blankets and food aid for up to a year. Each family will also get a plot of about 5,000 square feet as well as seeds for planting.

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