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Afghan Refugees Brace for Harsh Winter - 2001-10-26

In Afghanistan, the approach of winter is threatening to deepen the suffering of an estimated one million internally displaced people. Relief organizations are hurrying to deliver humanitarian supplies to camps spread throughout the country. They fear that bad weather and an escalation of hostilities between Taleban and opposition forces could prevent them from reaching the needy.

Local people here call it bobi shabit, for bad winds, blinding windstorms that sweep through this part of Afghanistan in late October and serve as an early warning indicator that winter is not far away.

The winds are especially troubling for relief workers who have been working around the clock to stockpile enough food and cold weather supplies for distribution.

In a large warehouse in Khodja Bahoudin, near the Tajikistan border, a French relief agency called ACTID, is preparing to deliver wheat, cooking oil, blankets and other essential items to remote areas of Northern Afghanistan.

ACTID officials, say most of the internally displaced are farmers who lost everything during the three-year old drought and were forced to leave their homes. Others fled the Taleban takeover of towns and cities in recent years. All are desperately poor, living in squalid conditions with little more than the clothes on their backs.

ACTID estimates they will need to reach about 500,000 people this winter to keep them from freezing and starving. The relief agency thinks it can only reach 180,000 before winter sets in, in less than two weeks. Sebastien Tribes is the coordinating director for ACTED in Afghanistan.

"In order to get supplies into this country, you have to cross rivers, there are no proper road systems and there is no paved road in this whole country," explains Mr. Tribes. "In some of the most affected areas are actually the ones that are most remote and most mountainous with no real access."

Relief workers have much easier access to displaced people in camps near big towns like Khodja Bahoudin. Consequently, the people here stand a better chance of receiving assistance. But their needs are so great that it's difficult to see how a shipment of wheat, blankets and cooking oil will be enough to see them through months of bitter cold weather.

In Quom Camp an infant's cry breaks the early morning silence. The boy is cold and hungry his older sister says, cradling the child in her scrawny arms.

Inside a flimsy thatched roofed tent, the children's father, Gol Nazir, despairs about the coming winter. He came to Quom Camp with his six children over a year ago to escape the Taleban. With just three thin blankets and a handful of rice, he says his family barely made it though last year's winter and he's not at all sure if they will make it this year.

"You see how we are living," Mr. Nazir says, "the nights are already cold, I think we may just die here." He pulls his vest closer to him, closes his eyes and says nothing more.