Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Between War and a Hard Place

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Between War and a Hard Place

Article excerpt

No one willingly chooses the life of a refugee.

Like most members of her village in northern Afghanistan, Abadan didn't leave during the Soviet invasion of 1979. She didn't leave in the 1980s, when Muslim religious warriors bloodied the nose of the Soviet superpower. And she didn't leave during the 1990s, when Afghan rebels pummeled each other for the right to rule Afghanistan.

But in December, Abadan's village was caught in a crossfire of heavy shelling. Dozens died, including her nephew. Abadan and her husband decided they could no longer safely raise their four daughters in Afghanistan. That decision created a cascade of difficult choices.

To pay for their escape to Pakistan, Abadan sold her livestock, one cow at a time. But all her neighbors were selling their stock as well, which pushed prices lower with each new cow. Then she sold extra clothing. Her wedding jewelry went next. Then her cookware, and finally the windows and door frames of

her home. Today, Abadan and her family have the clothes they wear, a few blankets, and a single aluminum pot. "Whatever we had, we sold piece by piece," she says without a note of complaint. "This is the only pot, and I use it for gathering water, for cooking food, for making tea." Out of habit, she offers a visitor a cup of tea.

"We hoped it would be better here, but it didn't turn out like that," says the young mother, who also now cares for her nephew's three orphaned children. "But," she says, with a smile, "there is no fighting."

Afghan refugees are flowing out of the country once again in the highest numbers in almost 10 years. Driven by the harsh confluence of famine and war, they are arriving at the Pakistani border by the thousands, trickling into already-bursting refugee camps around Peshawar by the hundreds each day. This influx has aid workers scrambling to provide the very basics of life - food, clothing, blankets, tents - to people who have sold or lost everything they own.

Politically, the mass migration of some 150,000 Afghan refugees into Pakistan - along with 350,000 more displaced people within Afghanistan - couldn't come at a worse time. Foreign aid that has supported Afghan refugees since 1979 is drying up, as many Western nations give up hope of a lasting peace in Afghanistan and turn their attention to other crises. Compassion within Pakistan - the nation that bore the brunt of the 6.2 million refugees who have left Afghanistan in 21 years - is also diminishing.

Meanwhile, there is very little sign of fatigue on the part of the two main warring factions. On one side are the ultraconservative Taliban, the student-led rebels who enforce a strict interpretation of Islam on the 90 percent of Afghanistan that they now control. On the other side is a small, fractious, but well-funded Northern Alliance of mujahideen, some of whom helped drive out the Soviets in 1989 only to later turn on one another. …

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