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Afghan Refugees Flee US Attacks, Face Difficulties in Pakistan - 2001-11-02

Tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have fled their homes since the United States began carrying out air strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan three weeks ago. The United Nations says nearly 80,000 Afghans have illegally entered Pakistan since the bombing campaign began.

Many of the refugees are being received at a temporary camp the United Nations has set up near the town of Chaman, about two kilometers from the Afghan border. The area is dusty, inhospitable and has a limited supply of water.

The United Nations is expected to move the camp's 2,000 residents to a more suitable site. But they are worried about the number of new arrivals arriving at the makeshift facility every day.

Most of the refugees who are being registered here come from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and neighboring regions, an area that has been heavily targeted by U.S. air strikes.

Refugees like Jameela Bibi say it took them several days to reach the Chaman border crossing. She says the U.S. was bombing, that's why they left Kandahar. Her five year old son was killed in one of the attacks and she says each and every resident of her village had left.

Many of the families arrive in Pakistan after traveling for several days, with few of their possessions. Many of the elderly and children are sick or malnourished.

Dr. Kabeerulla Noorzaie from the international organization, Doctors without Borders, said many of the refugees have also suffered emotional trauma. "For the past five days we have started the very basic health care for these people. We have seen so far many patients who have headache after bombing in Afghanistan and they cross the border. And they cross the border and come into our camp," she said.

Bahram Khan, a young resident of Kandahar city, has just arrived in the camp.

He says the people who are fleeing are mainly those who have money to pay for their transportation. The majority of the people in his village were unable to leave because they did not have resources.

Despite the crisis, some aid workers say the overall number of refugees is not as high as they had originally feared.

The United Nations refugee agency says it is working to set up refugee camps in southwestern and northwestern Pakistan. Fifteen are expected to become operational soon. These camps will be able to accommodate up to 150,000 refugees.

Heather Hill is a senior official for the U.N. World Food Program. She says Afghans were already on the move because of a prolonged drought and the civil war in their country. But now she says more are leaving. "Many of them left because they were frightened of the bombardments and coupled with that is the drought the lack of food. I think the fact that some of the cities like Kandahar and Herat that 70 percent of the population has left that would certainly indicate if they have the financial means to get out of the city they are leaving," she said.

Sixty-year old Abdullah Jan came from a village in northwestern Badghis province. He says his five member family was already suffering the hardships of civil war and a prolonged drought in the country.

He says he hoped things will improve one day but the American bombing now has made the life even more difficult.

Abdullah Jan and most residents at the makeshift camp in southern Pakistan say they do not want to go back at least until the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan ends. But their future is uncertain in Pakistan. Officials in Pakistan insist the United Nations should set up camps for these refugees inside Afghanistan because their country is under re-sourced and cannot afford another major influx of refugees.