War's Forgotten Faces

War's Forgotten Faces

Larry Thompson of Refugees International describes what life is like for the refugees of conflicts, old and new, in Afghanistan

Since the U.S. began its campaign against Afghanistan two months ago, more than 100,000 refugees have flowed over the border into Pakistan. These refugees are but the latest wave of people who have fled unrest in Afghanistan and settled into camps or grim villages, or disappeared into Pakistan's cities. More than two million Afghans now live in Pakistan (two million more live in Iran), and, according to Peter Maass in "How a Camp Becomes a City" (The New York Times Magazine, November 18, 2001), "they arrived in generations of exodus: fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion, fleeing civil war after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, fleeing the 1996 Taliban takeover, fleeing the drought since 1998 and, now, fleeing the United States attack."

After the Soviet war in Afghanistan faded from the news, most people forgot about the Afghan refugees who remained unable to return to their homes. During the 1980s and 1990s, refugee camps in Pakistan served as breeding grounds for the Taliban movement, as many young Afghan refugees were schooled in madrassas that taught a puritanical brand of Islam. The international community now faces the challenge both of providing food and aid to Afghan refugees and of trying to make sure that Afghanistan is stable enough that the refugees can someday return there, rather than remaining in camps where resentments can fester and new radical movements can brew. Larry Thompson is one of the people who is both working to solve the current situation and looking ahead to keep the situation from repeating itself. He works for Refugees International, an advocacy group that brings attention to refugee issues around the world. His experience in Afghanistan dates back to the 1970s, when he lived in Kabul for three years. He visited Afghanistan twice this year—traveling to Herat and to the Northern Alliance capital of Faizabad—and is one of the few Americans to have been to the country while it was under Taliban control. We corresponded by e-mail while Thompson was in Pakistan, meeting with Afghan leaders of non-governmental organizations and trying to see that they are involved in the creation and implementation of the reconstruction plan for Afghanistan. Thompson was a foreign-service officer with the State Department for twenty-five years before joining Refugees International in 1992. On behalf of Refugees International, he has visited a dozen countries in Asia, Africa, the Balkans and Latin America.

—Katie Bacon

As someone who spent a good deal of time in Afghanistan in the 1970s and who visited it during the Taliban regime, it sounds like you have a rare outside perspective on the changes that have gone on—and on how the country's been affected by them. Could you talk about your experiences there over the years? When I lived in Afghanistan in the seventies, the country was at peace, there was a good network of roads, Afghanistan was a popular tourist destination for the hardy, women were beginning to attend school and be employed, and the grinding poverty of the vast majority of Afghans was slowly being relieved by economic development. Now the roads have deteriorated, the people are poorer than ever, few have access to education or health services, and at least 4 million Afghans have fled their homeland as refugees to Pakistan and Iran.

But the country hasn't changed all that much in appearance in twenty-five years. Under the Taliban women were required to wear the all-enveloping Burka or Chadri, but most wore it twenty-five years ago, too. Pickup trucks have replaced the camel to a great extent—and the number of fancy pickups in Herat indicates that some Afghans are making money, probably from smuggling. There are fewer of the dilapidated, wildly painted and decorated buses on the roads now—the people aren't traveling as much, probably due to the civil war. Fewer cities and towns have electricity and phone service. Reminders of the long war include the frequent incorporation of old bomb and shell casings into foundations for houses and roads.

On a personal note, one of the sadnesses is that trout have reportedly disappeared from the rivers in the high Hindu Kush. I used to ride days on horseback to fish these remote waters. Now, more than twenty years of soldiers fishing with hand grenades has decimated the trout population.

Afghan refugees
Afghan refugees in Shamshatoo Camp, Pakistan (December 2001)

How would you describe the situation now in the refugee camps you've visited in Pakistan?

It's important to recognize that most of the two million-plus Afghans living in Pakistan are no longer living in refugee camps. A large number of them live in what are called refugee settlements which are rather ordinary, although usually very poor, mud brick villages.

Of the Afghan refugees who have arrived during the last year or so—more than 200,000—many have taken up residence in Pakistani cities and are unregistered and unknown to the authorities. Invisible refugees, we have called them. Others are in camps living in tents.

Of the camps, Shamshatoo near Peshawar is the largest—about 70,000 people. Shamshatoo is comfortable—as refugee camps go. Food, medical care, water and other services are available to its population. Nearby Jalozai, however, has been a hell-hole since its founding a year ago. Tens of thousands of people are crammed into a small area, and all services, especially sanitation, are deficient.

The international community has long advocated that the government of Pakistan move the inhabitants of Jalozai to a better site, but only in the last few weeks have people from Jalozai been moved to newer camps near the border with Afghanistan. These new camps offer adequate services, but they are in insecure areas in which safe access by international aid agencies is difficult. The local population has a lot of anti-refugee sentiment, and there have been several attacks on the headquarters and vehicles of international aid agencies. The Pakistani government, however, insisted on establishing these new camps in dangerous border areas, probably with the objective of facilitating repatriation of refugees as well as to keep the refugees somewhat separated from the Pakistani population.

All the neighboring states—Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan—have closed their borders to the entry of new Afghan refugees. However, Pakistan allows some vulnerable refugees to enter for "humanitarian" reasons, and there's a steady stream of people secretly filtering across the border

What's the feeling in the camps about the war, the toppling of the Taliban, and the new government?

That's hard to judge. I spoke to a number of new arrivals last spring and all of them cited the civil war as the reason they had been forced to leave their homes. They were primarily from front line areas in the civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance and found it impossible to remain safely where they were, grow crops, etc. A few refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.

Early on during the U.S. bombing there was some pro-Taliban feeling among the old Afghan refugees in Pakistan, most of whom fled here to escape the Soviets in the 1980s. However, in talking to refugees on this visit to Pakistan, I haven't found anyone who professed to be pro-Taliban. In fact, they speak of the Taliban in the past tense.

It's worth noting that many of the Taliban lived in the refugee camps in the 1980s. They were educated in the Pakistani religious schools—madrassas—and developed the religious fanaticism they would take with them back to Afghanistan in the early 1990s. Idleness is the curse of refugee camps and breeds extremism. We're hopeful that now most of the Afghans in refugee camps will be able to go home soon.

All the Afghans have expressed a profound sense of relief that a peaceful Afghanistan would seem to be possible in the near future—although after twenty-three years of war I wouldn't blame them for having a healthy skepticism that better times are at hand.

Is there a feeling that the international community will address the current Afghan refugee crisis in a more effective way than previous ones?

I believe there is a conviction among the international community that we need to get a war- and drought-stricken Afghanistan back on its feet. This will necessitate continuing large humanitarian aid programs for at least a year or two, as well as aid to refugees in Pakistan and Iran who wish to return to their homes and can do so safely.

So, if the politicians can create a well-intentioned, stable government in Afghanistan—and that's a big if—I am confident that the humanitarian and refugee crises can be overcome and that most of Afghanistan's people can recover their economic self-sufficiency.

Tents in a displaced person camp
Tents in a displaced persons camp near Khoja Bahuddin, northeastern Afghanistan (May 2001)

Peter Maass pointed out in The New York Times Magazine that the way most people envision refugee camps—"rows of white tents filled with miserable, helpless people waiting to be fed by American or European relief workers"—may be true in the midst of a new emergency, like the current war, but does not hold true for the more established refugee camps that persist even once the emergency at hand has faded from the news. Could you give a sense of what life is like in the refugee camps, both new ones and the well-established ones?

It's hard to generalize. I was in Herat, Afghanistan, last February when the temperature dropped to below zero and six inches of snow fell. There were about 80,000 people living in Maslakh refugee camp in tents, and theirs was a struggle just to survive. Not all of them did. I saw the new graves of people—mostly children—who had died of exposure.

Jalozai in Pakistan was another camp with horrible conditions. Tens of thousands of people were living packed together so closely that their makeshift tents touched each other. The men, thousands of them, were just standing around, waiting, silently waiting for something to happen. It was eerie and frightening to see so many helpless people.

On the other hand, a well-established camp is often not much different from a village or a town. Little stores spring up. People build mud-brick houses and use their tents for roofs. Blue is a dominant color in most refugee camps, because the United Nations distributes blue tarps to refugees for tents and shelters.

Ration cards are given to refugees by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in many places around the world, and the ration card becomes the all-important piece of paper which allows a person to receive a monthly ration of food: usually flour or wheat, oil, perhaps sugar, legumes, or beans.

Refugees are not always pleasant and friendly people, grateful and gracious for the aid they are receiving. They are people who have fled their homes in terror because of violence or hunger and their focus is on the survival of themselves and their families. A refugee may lie, cheat, or steal to survive. They are people under enormous, sustained stress, torn away from familiar surroundings, and often stripped of everything but their suffering. A refugee's life is never easy—even if he has enough to eat and a comfortable place to sleep.

How much tension is there between the U.S. military's goals in Afghanistan and the humanitarian goals?

The U.S. bombing campaign has, on occasion, disrupted the delivery of relief supplies—but surprisingly little. The trucks full of wheat have kept on rolling to most parts of Afghanistan during most of the bombing, a tribute to the hundreds of Pakistani and Afghan truck drivers who have delivered the food.

What sort of job do you think the U.S. government has been doing in responding to the humanitarian crisis?

About 80 percent of the wheat going into Afghanistan to feed the people is from the United States. The U.S. government, early in this conflict, apparently decided that humanitarian aid to prevent people from dying of starvation in Afghanistan was an important component of its strategy to get rid of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Thus, the resources were made available by the U.S. and other countries to increase food shipments to Afghanistan.

Enough food is available to feed the Afghans now, but there are still serious problems getting it to where it's needed. A special need is for Uzbekistan to open a bridge across the Amu Darya River to improve access for humanitarian aid to the "hunger belt" in northern Afghanistan. The joke goes that the good news is that the Uzbeks said they are going to open the bridge this week; the bad news is that they've said the same thing every week for three months. By contrast, Pakistan's and Iran's cooperation with the international community for moving food has been excellent.

Even with sufficient food, security conditions are poor in some areas of Afghanistan and road access to high mountain areas is difficult because of winter snows. But there's a good chance of preventing massive famine in Afghanistan this winter—which is an improvement over the prognosis two or three months ago.

Do you see our current involvement in Afghanistan—both the government's actions, and people's eagerness for news about what's happening there—as only a temporary heightening of interest, or are you hopeful that it represents a sea change in how Americans view the world?

I hope it's permanent. For the last decade, the U.S. has been less and less interested and involved in the world around us. Now the 9/11 bombings illustrate to us that Afghanistan—one of these small, apparently unimportant countries that we have ignored for so long—can reach out and bite us, and bite us hard. We ignore the rest of the world at our own risk.

I believe also that we have a humanitarian obligation. In 1800, the difference in incomes between the richest and poorest countries was about 3 to 1; in 1900 it was about 10 to 1. Today, we in the United States and other rich countries enjoy incomes about 100 times greater than the people in the poorest countries do. That's an inequality that is dangerous to us and, damn it, rich as we are we should ensure that no one around the world goes to bed hungry. It's in our long-term national security interest to foster human rights, justice, and at least a minimal standard of living for all the world's people.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s we were concerned about the spread of communism, and we therefore took events seriously in small countries around the world. Communism is dead, but political chaos, genocide, terrorism, and a whole lot of bad things are occurring all around us, and we need to pay attention and try to do something about them. We can't tackle all the world's problems, but we can do a better job of it than we've done since the end of the Cold War.