Accessibility links

Iran Helps Afghan Refugees Near Border - 2001-11-13

Drought, poverty, and years of war have driven hundreds of thousands of Afghans from their homes. For several years neighboring Iran has taken in more than two million Afghans. After the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Iran closed its border, fearing a new refugee influx. But Iran established two camps, just inside Afghanistan, to shelter the newcomers.

Five-kilometers inside Afghanistan and past the border post manned by Northern Alliance fighters, 700 tents have been set up to house just less than 1,000 Afghan refugees. This is camp "Mile 46," apparently named simply after a marker that delineates the border between Iran and Afghanistan.

People here have come from various parts of Afghanistan, driven from their homes by drought, poverty, and war. We are told various ethnic groups are represented here, but most of the people we see on this particular day seem to be ethnic Hazaras and Tajiks.

Massouma came here with her husband and four children from the western Afghan city of Herat. She says life in the camp is hard. She says there is not enough rice or cooking oil and she complains of the cold nights. She says they do not have enough warm clothes or heat in the tents. She is joined outside her tent by other women relatives. They all say they left their homes to escape the war and American bombing raids. One woman, Amaneh, says her husband was killed in one such air strike.

She says she now has no one. The women here say if there is peace, they will all go back home. She says she has one child but does not know where he is. He is somewhere in Afghanistan, she says.

Iranian authorities have set up this camp and they provide the basics; electricity, water, food, sanitation facilities, and basic medical care. Medical workers say the main problem is dysentery, but they warn of worse to come once winter sets in and temperatures drop.

Outside one tent a small girl lies whimpering in her mother's arms. No one seems to know what is wrong with her.

But conditions in this camp are much better than in Makaki, a more crowded camp about 35 kilometers away, where about 6,000 Afghan refugees live and relief operations are stretched to the limit.

At Mile 46 there is even a tent school and organized games for the children. About two-dozen children play a game of catch, chasing each other around a dusty playground and clapping.

Ali Nahdi works for the Iranian Center for Children and Youth. He comes here to help the children in the camp.

He says he has been here three times and enjoys coming to the camp to show films and bring books to the children. Some of the children eagerly clutch their little books and hurry off to their tents. Others continue to run and play.

Refugees at both camps tell much the same story: they fled their homes because of drought and war. Most do not know much of what is going on in the rest of their country. They all say they hope for peace so they can go back home.

Thirty-five-year-old Shahzada is from the northeastern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. He and other family members echo those sentiments. He thinks it will be good for the Afghan tribes to get together to make peace, but he adds that only God knows when the war will be over.

Asked what he thinks about the Taleban, Shahzada shrugs his shoulders in resignation. We are just ordinary people, he says. We have no say; whoever is "taller," he says, we must look up to.

And, in the meantime these families will stay here, hope for help, and wait.