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Afghans Living in Squalid Conditions at World's Largest Refugee Camp - 2001-12-29

In western Afghanistan, an estimated 120,000 people fleeing warfare and drought are crowded into several makeshift refugee camps near the border with Iran. VOA's Alisha Ryu recently visited the largest camp and reports that the sheer number of people in need is overwhelming aid workers.

In a futile effort to survive the drought that has plagued much of Afghanistan for the past three years, Shah Mohammed began selling his belongings and livestock to buy food for his family in southern Herat province. When he had nothing more left to sell, he took his wife and seven children and headed north toward Maslakh camp where he thought the family would get sufficient food and water from international aid agencies. He has been in Maslakh for over a month and says the camp is in dire need of help. He says over 500 families have arrived in the last month. And although most of them have received tents, no one has received enough food.

Sprawled over several kilometers on a desert west of Herat city, Maslakh is currently the largest refugee camp in the world. All of Afghanistan's ethnic groups are represented here, including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns, and Hazaras. Most have walked to the camp, from as far away as Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

One part of Maslakh, which means "slaughterhouse" in the local dialect, is filled with people who have fled Afghanistan's decade-long civil war. They are now semi-permanent residents, living in squalid mud brick homes.

But thousands of other recent arrivals are huddled around hastily pitched tents. Children run barefoot through piles of human excrement strewn all over the camp.

The arrival of journalists immediately attracts hundreds of men, women and children, desperate for attention and help. Mistaking the journalists for relief workers distributing aid, they thrust out their hands, clenching small pieces of paper. The notes plead for more food and tents. They shout and push each other, breaking into fights.

Gulam Sahid, a farmer who fled U.S. bombing near Herat a month ago, says the lack of food, sanitation and the cold weather are taking a heavy toll. "People here are very sick," he says. He has heard that more than 200 are dying in the camp every day."

The International Organization for Migration, the which is now in charge of Maslakh, says conditions are bad because the camp's population has tripled since the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan began October 7.

Since then, the IOM has been struggling to better coordinate the relief work of some 20 aid agencies, including UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders. The deputy director of the local IMO, Dan Gill, says one of its priorities right now is to find a way to get as many refugees as possible, home again.

"During registration," says Mr. Gill, "there will be questions as to 'Do you want to go home? If so, when? Now or later? What are the obstacles in going home? Is it because your home is destroyed? Is it because you had to sell your livestock?' And from that, we will be able to assist them going back."

Even if many of the refugees are returned to their homes, Maslakh is not likely to close down any time soon. There are more than one million Afghan refugees still living across the border in Iran. Growing impatient with their presence, authorities in Tehran in recent weeks have reportedly been sending some of the refugees back to Afghanistan by force.