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Drought, Poverty, War Force Afghans into Camps - 2001-11-09

Thousands of Afghans have fled war and drought to seek refuge in neighboring Iran. But Iran's border remains closed and many of refugees have ended up in two camps close to the Iranian border, but still inside Afghanistan.

Rows of tents set up on a dry, dusty desert plain. This is Makaki camp in Taleban-controlled southwestern Afghanistan, temporary home to some 6,000 Afghans. Most are ethnic Pashtuns. They come from various parts of Afghanistan, but their stories are the same, drought, poverty and now war have forced them to flee their homes.

Seyed Mohammad is in his sixties. He and his wife Beigom have come from the village of Farah, about one day's drive away. They came to the camp three weeks ago with their six children. He complains about the cold nights and says they do not have enough warm clothes. He worries the children will get sick.

Seyed Mohammad says when the bombing stops and peace comes, they will all go back home. He says they don't like depending on others for help. He says he hopes for a stable government in Afghanistan and peace. If there is peace, he says, we will be happy.

When asked what life is like in the camp, his wife has a simple answer. She says, whether it's good or bad here, it's God's will.

Sharifadin was once a teacher in Nimroz, in southwestern Afghanistan. He says he came to the camp almost three weeks ago because of the bombing and he hopes the international community will come and help them. "We hope we have a good life and we hope the world will help us," he says.

Thirty-five-year old Abdulzahir also comes from Farah. He looks distraught as he sits on the ground, three of his children next to him. They came here two weeks ago. There is no tent for them and they live in a hole dug in the ground and covered with a blanket. Abdulzahir says his wife and one child were killed in an American bombing raid. He says he doesn't know what to do now, how to raise his children. I wish I were dead too, he says.

The United States has repeatedly said it is taking great pains to target only Taleban and al-Qaida targets. But that means little to the people here. One man says he has seen civilians die and asks why Americans are bombing homes and killing families.

Electricity, water, food and some basic medical care are provided by Iran through the Iranian Red Crescent Society.

Young girls come to get water. Outside a nearby tent a father gently washes a small child.

About 50 women have lined up outside the medical tents waiting for a doctor. This is where the most vulnerable come. Many of the women hold small, sick children. Some cry, others whimper, and some are too listless to even do that.

Dr. Javad Rahnavard is one of two attending physicians here. He's a volunteer from the Iranian province of Shiraz. He says the main problems at the camp are dysentery, skin diseases and malnutrition. He says in order to treat malnutrition they really need a better-equipped medical facility.

Only the basics are provided here, food, water, some sanitary facilities and some medical care. Malnutrition is evident and some of the small children are woefully thin. However, there are no children with distended bellies, a grim sight often seen during other refugee crises. But even so, medical workers warn of greater problems to come as winter sets in and temperatures drop. And relief efforts here are already stretched. Officials say the camp is filled to capacity, but more refugees arrive every day.

These trucks have just arrived with newcomers from around Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, far from the camp. They say they've been on the road for about 15 days. They indicate they came here to the Iran border because they heard that the U.N. would help them. They add they have no money to go back.

Makaki is filled with families, but there are also plenty of young, able-bodied men about. There have been news reports of trouble in the camp and efforts by the Taleban, who control this area, to forcibly recruit fighters. The men here deny such reports. They say there has been no pressure on them to go fight in the war.

It's impossible to tell how many men in the camp may actually be Taleban. There was no visible element of armed Taleban fighters in the camp. While there are a few men armed with Kalashnikovs, they say they're here to provide security.

About a kilometer from the camp is the border crossing into Iran and there is a Taleban border post there.

The Iranians would like to move the refugees from Makaki to another camp about 35 kilometers away. They say that camp offers better living conditions and better medical facilities and even has a school.

But Iranians say the Taleban will not allow the people at Makaki to leave. The problem is Makaki is in territory the Taleban control. The other camp is in an area controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance.