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Half-Million Afghans Displaced by Drought, Violence - 2002-05-22

In southern Afghanistan, nearly one-half million people are living in camps after being displaced by drought and ethnic cleansing in the north. Relief officials say many of these displaced people will not be able to return home for some time. Still, some have begun to leave.

It is early morning at the United Nations processing center along the highway that links Quetta, in southern Pakistan, with the southern Afghan city, Kandahar. Farm tractors are hauling several dozen families and their belongings to the center.

Some of the families have no fathers and, according to tradition, are headed by the oldest son. Gulal from Helmand Province is one of these heads-of-family. He has the face and voice of a 12-year-old boy, but his hands are hard and callused like those of a grown man. Gulal enters the registration room with a sheaf of documents, while his mother and two sisters sit in a corner.

Gulal and his family are ready to return to their home in neighboring Helmand province. But before they can go, the children under 12 years must be vaccinated.

Gulal's sisters are vaccinated and are given a quick medical check to see if they are healthy enough for the rugged trip ahead. Once these formalities are completed, Gulal and his family go to the back of the compound, where the tractor with their belongings has backed up to the truck that will carry them home. Some men help them transfer their belongings: a few sacks of clothes, some poles for a tent and a few pots.

Gulal said his father is dead. He said he went off to fight in one of Afghanistan's war - he does not say which - and was killed. Gulal said the family decided to return home because there is no food at the camp.

All of the returnees say there is a lack of food assistance in the camps. Shergul heads a nomadic (Kuchi) family from Urzgan Province. He said he lost everything during the five years of drought.

"Everything, all our livestock died. We have no livestock," Shergul said.

Shergul said he cannot afford to buy sheep to re-start his herd. As a result, he said he will move from place to place looking for work as a day-laborer and settle down when he finds a job.

The U.N. official in charge of the center, Mark Rutgers of the High Commissioner for Refugees, said a humanitarian crisis is looming in southern Afghanistan, because the rains have not returned as they have in the north. We have "not only have drought, but desertification, which means Nomadic people who follow the rains no longer have crops to follow or livestock to depend on," Mr. Rutgers said.

Mr. Rutgers said, in addition, relief agencies are having difficulties finding private organizations to run the camps, feed the residents and provide transportation home.

These worries do not bother Gulal who, with his family, is climbing into the back of the truck, preparing to leave for home. Gulal's concerns are more immediate, and he thinks ahead to what he will do when he gets home.

"I will go to school. I am not in school yet. [But] look, I have been given schoolbooks," he said.

Gulal waves a dusty bag containing some notebooks and pencils provided by the United Nations Childrens Fund UNICEF, as the truck pulls slowly away.

Officials say these people will need emergency assistance until the next harvest - more than a year away. Otherwise, they may leave home again, adding to the pressure on relief agencies that already are struggling to avoid a human disaster here.