Destitute and Confused: Bleak Future For Refugees Caught In The Crossfire
Residents of grim camp tell of clashes between coalition forces and the Taliban
KABUL - In the evening the temperature falls at last and light slants across the camp, throwing long shadows across the stagnant puddles and shining through the kites, made from plastic bags, that the children fly.
It shines, too, through the thin walls of the makeshift tents that cover a patch of wasteland in the west of Kabul. The 3,500 refugees who live in them are a long way from their homes in the badlands of the south where the British are fighting. Most of the refugees are from districts such as Sangin, Nawazad, Kajaki or Gereshk in the southern province of Helmand, sites of fierce battles between British troops and the Taliban.
Their stories reveal a different side of the conflict. Few understand who is fighting, even fewer distinguish between British troops and those of other nationalities, all tell stories of civilians killed by coalition air strikes. There is little sign of progress in the campaign to win hearts and minds.
Rozi Khan, a day labourer from Kajaki, said he had no idea which soldiers were fighting around his village when he left two months ago. In fact, securing Kajaki with its strategically important reservoir and dam has been a British objective since the initial days of the deployment in 2006. Last week British soldiers successfully transported a huge turbine to the dam, which could eventually supply nearly 2 million people with electricity. Coalition spokesmen claimed to have killed more than 250 Taliban during the operation.
But there is little evidence of material improvement on the ground, according to the refugees. "They say they have come to help us but they have come for fighting," Khan, 25, said. "But instead of killing one person who has attacked them they kill 50 people in the village. Is this a help?"
Bismatullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said "the Americans" and the Taliban were fighting around his home in Sangin, again in the British zone of operations. He too spoke of how large numbers of civilians had been killed and buildings destroyed. Independent confirmation of the claim was unavailable.
Bismatullah, 32, was nostalgic for the days when the Taliban were in power. "There was peace and security and no real fighting. The Taliban were following the path of the Qur'an," he said.
Such sentiments appear widespread. Many refugees interviewed said that the insurgents had not bothered them; others said that, as they had nothing, the Taliban had accepted their refusal to provide food. "They came asking but I showed them my children who are hungry and have no clothes and they left me alone. They get food from the richer people," said one farmer from Sangin.
Elsewhere, however, the refugees said the Taliban demanded food, lodging or even volunteers. "If you have nothing else to give them you have to go with them and they give you a gun and you have to fight. They haven't committed any atrocities but people are afraid of them," said another Sangin resident.
Often, villagers made a distinction between local Taliban they knew personally, such as those apparently operating in Kajaki district, and those who came from elsewhere, sometimes Pakistan, with whom they had more trouble. The real problem, most said, was not the Taliban or the "Amriki", as western troops are universally known, but the combination of the two.
"We had to leave because the Taliban were coming to our village and firing once or twice and there would be a big bombardment and some civilians would die," Ahmed Shah, from Nawazad district, said. The word bombardment has been integrated into local languages.
Nato spokesmen frequently allege that the Taliban deliberately invite attacks that will kill civilians in order to turn local populations against the international forces and the Afghan government they support. Taliban spokesmen deny the charge. The situation is muddied further as local officials and tribal elders often inflate the number of civilian casualties for political gain or more compensation.
But that the villagers are caught in the crossfire is without doubt. Nor is their extreme poverty. Most are landless labourers forced to travel to seek work. For them the war brings particular problems.
"If I went out of my village I risked being shot by the government as a Taliban spy or shot by the Taliban as a government spy," said one refugee from the central Oruzgan province, where Dutch and US soldiers are deployed. "The government holds the district centres, the Taliban run everything outside."
Most of the refugees are destitute, often having borrowed money or sold their last possessions to travel by truck to Kabul. The unauthorised camp has been established on unused government land. There is no sanitation and summer temperatures reach 40C (104F). They live on scraps of stale bread scavenged from rubbish piles across the city.
As a widow with four young children, Gul Pari is in a worse situation than many. She said her husband, a labourer, was killed a year ago in Helmand in a "bombardment" but is unsure which side was to blame. "When there was fighting, we did not know what was going on. But I think it was the fault of the Taliban because they were shooting and then there was an attack afterwards. Now we have nothing except the 50 Afghani [65p] each day that my son gets from selling ice creams."
The refugees have received blankets and plastic sheets from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and an initial ration of food from the government, and are helped by local businessmen.
"They are in a poor situation but are better off than many other such communities around the country who are less visible," said Mohammed Nader Farhad of the UNHCR. "Especially in the south and east there are problems with displacement due to military operations. Most people want to go home but can't due to the fighting."
Government estimates place the number of internally displaced by the conflict at 10,000, though aid agencies believe the true total is seven times greater.
Said Ali, who last month fled the Helmand town of Gereshk, where British troops have struggled for two years to stabilise a secure zone, said: "There was fighting with the Taliban and local people shooting at the soldiers and then the planes were coming. My house was destroyed, my animals were killed, my brother injured. We have nothing there and we have nothing here."
Ali was unsure of the future. "When there is peace we will go home but now there is war," he said.
For a few autumn months at least the temperatures will be relatively pleasant and the dust storms will end. But then the vicious Kabul winter will come.