As the Fighting Swells in Afghanistan, So Does a Refugee Camp in Its Capital
KABUL, Afghanistan - On a piece of barren land on the western edge of this capital, a refugee camp is steadily swelling as families displaced by the heavy bombardment in southern Afghanistan arrive in batches.
The growing numbers reaching Kabul are a sign of the deepening of the conflict between NATO and American forces and the Taliban in the south and of the feeling among the population that there will be no end soon. Families who fled the fighting around their homes in Helmand Province one or two years ago and sought temporary shelter around two southern provincial capitals, Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, said they had moved to Kabul because of growing insecurity across the south.
"If there was security in the south, why would we come here?" said Abdullah Khan, 50, who lost his father, uncle and a female relative in the bombing of their home last year. "We will stay here, even for 10 years, until the bombardment ends."
Sixty-one families from just one southern district - Kajaki, in northern Helmand Province - arrived in Kabul in late July. A representative for those families, Khair Muhammad, 27, said that a major jailbreak last month that freed hundreds of Taliban prisoners was the latest sign of the deteriorating security. "Do you know, the Taliban entered Kandahar city and broke into the prison?" he said. "Do you think that is security?"
The United Nations refugee agency has registered 450 families from Helmand Province at the camp - approximately 3,000 people. But that is only a part of the overall refugee picture. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people have been displaced by the insurgency in the south, but the numbers fluctuate as some have been able to return home when the fighting moves elsewhere.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has warned that the displaced who have reached the cities represent only the tip of the iceberg, and many others are trapped by violence in remote areas without assistance.
Many of the families who have arrived in Kabul have suffered traumatic losses and injuries, and they say that they are pessimistic about the future.
"The Taliban are getting stronger," said Muhammad Younus, a farm worker who abandoned his village after his father, brother and uncle were killed in an airstrike two years ago. "There were armored vehicles on the hill and they were firing. There was a heavy bombardment, and planes bombed, too," he said. "They did not differentiate between the guilty and not guilty."
He, like many of the displaced people, complained that villagers found themselves trapped between Taliban fighters, who used the villages for cover to attack foreign forces, and NATO and American forces, which would often call in airstrikes on village compounds where civilians were living.
"We left our houses because we had no power to resist the Taliban or the government," said Mr. Muhammad, the representative who brought families to Kabul from villages in Kajaki.
"Anytime the Taliban fired a shot from our houses, then the coalition, the government and the police came to the area and hit us."
"The government comes and arrests us, and then the Taliban come and arrest us as well," he said. "We are under the feet of two powers."
As a civilian plane circled above the city, Mr. Muhammad and the crowd of men around him all looked nervously upward. "We are in trouble with these things," he said, pointing at the plane. "There was fighting in the village a hundred times, roadside bombs, bombardment, firing and shooting."
His strongest complaints were against the Taliban who, he said, had accused a relative of being a spy for the coalition forces and executed him. "I absolutely know he was not," he said vehemently.
"The Taliban are coming during the night, with heavy weapons, riding on vehicles, and we cannot even dare ask them to leave, because if they see someone at night outside they will slaughter them and accuse them of being spies," he said.
But the heavy reprisals by NATO and American forces was what drove them from their homes in the end, he and others said.
Khan Muhammad, 35, came with 40 people from his extended family three months ago after their village, Tajoi, near Kajaki, was bombed and his 4-year-old son, Umar Khan, was killed. "His mother was cooking, and he was lying beside her," he said. "The whole village was destroyed, and after that we left."
He said the villagers did not even see the Taliban but heard them fire as foreign troops were driving along the road outside the village.
"We don't know from which side they fired, but we heard that," he said. "Half an hour or an hour later they bombed."
His father, Sher Ali Aqa, 75, was trapped under the rubble and his leg was shattered. Still unable to walk, he sat on a mat beside a makeshift tent.
"I blame the foreigners," Mr. Muhammad said. "If the Taliban fire from over there, do you come and bomb this village?"
He added, "We only want a stable country, whether with the Taliban or the foreigners." But he said that the level of violence made him realize that the foreign forces could not bring security.
That sentiment was echoed by many of the villagers, who said that the civilian deaths were particularly galling given the sophisticated technology of the coalition's warplanes.
"If they kill, if they wound innocent people, we don't want them," said Tauz Khan, a man from the Sangin district who said he lost five members of his family in bombings last year. "If they build and bring peace we will accept them."
His father, brother and a daughter were among those killed. "You cannot take revenge against a plane," he said. "But I will not forgive the foreigners for this crime."
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company