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Knight Ridder News Service/Mercury News, October 26, 2001

Refugees slipping into Pakistan seeking relief from U.S. bombing.  


TAJABAD, Pakistan Down a rutted dirt road, past parched wheat fields and acres of makeshift graves, lies the back entrance to an unofficial Afghan refugee encampment.  

Nobody claims to have an accurate count of the new arrivals, and relief agencies don't know where to find them.

 They are the "invisible refugees" who trek the rough paths of the Hindu Kush mountains, sometimes in long queues, and slip into Pakistan seeking relief from American air raids.

 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that about 60,000 Afghan refugees have crossed the ostensibly closed border near Peshawar since the bombing began. Only about 10,000 of them are living in camps authorized by the Pakistani government, where U.N. agencies and relief organizations are delivering food and other assistance.  

The others find their way to friends or relatives in urban areas and in the North West Frontier Provinces tribal areas near the border. Or they land in warrens of poverty such as Tajabad, north of Peshawar on the road to the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan.

In Tajabad, an old woman squats near the side of the road amid the stubble of a bone-dry field. She collects remnants of straw and puts them in a dirty sack to build a cooking fire. Next to her is a small girl with a string of plastic pearls around her neck, clutching a corncob gnawed to the core.  

Through the headscarf of the woman's pale green burqa _ a cloak commonly worn by Afghan women _ there are tears.

 "We are hungry," said Sabara, her only name, choking to get the words out. "We have nowhere to stay, and nothing to eat." She and her 6-year-old granddaughter, Bulale, fled Afghanistan two weeks ago. A stray bomb from a nighttime air raid hit their village of Kharir Khana, outside Kabul, killing her daughter _ Bulale's mother _ and several other villagers, she said.

 Terrified, she set out the next morning for Pakistan with her son-in-law and granddaughter. They hiked over the mountains to a remote border crossing, where her son-in-law bribed Pakistani guards to let them cross. "My feet were bleeding and I had chest pains," she said. "My body still aches all over."  

On the Pakistani side, van drivers wait to ferry refugees to Tajabad. Sabara's family caught a ride, spending their last 500 rupees, about $8.50. They had no relatives or friends there, but an Afghan family renting a compound in the sprawling settlement took pity on them and let them share a room for about $5 a month. She doesn't know where she'll find the money.

 Is she angry at the Americans for the bombing, or at the Taliban government, which provoked the war by harboring accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden?

 "I don't know what governments or politics are all about," she said. "I'm just someone from the countryside."

 She, at least, made it to Pakistan. Many of the weakest refugees are left on the Afghan side of the border because they're too sick to trek over the mountains or too poor to pay bribes, said Coriene Perthuis, a representative of the UNHCR in Peshawar.  

"We want to get permission to set up new camps on this side of the border to care for the new arrivals," Perthuis said. "For the moment, the Pakistani authorities are ignoring they are there. These are truly the invisible refugees."

 Not all the new arrivals are destitute. The urban Afghan enclave in the decaying Peshawar neighborhood of Tequal has been absorbing new refugees at a quickening pace. Some bunk with relatives, as is the case with Muhammad Arif, 37, a yarn merchant from suburban Kabul who came three days ago with his immediate family and relatives.

 They settled in with the family of his sister, who came to Peshawar to finish medical school after the Taliban banned women from studying or working outside the home. The extended family of 20 is doubled up in a clean but modest compound of four small rooms.  

Arif, whose father is a retired military doctor, said he decided to flee when the nightly bombing raids on a nearby military installation extended to daylight hours, terrifying his small children around the clock. He despairs over the renewed conflict in his homeland, and is pessimistic about his family's prospects in exile.

 "I don't see any future for the children of Afghanistan," he said in a weary voice. "What have they learned in this experience? They're going to end up as street vendors."

 In Tajabad, where the mud-hut refugee ghetto is sandwiched between arid farmland on one side and the large homes of wealthy Afghans and Pakistanis on the other, there is tense desperation.

The stench of open sewers is pervasive. School-age boys run wildly down the labyrinth of narrow lanes, all wearing the same dirty tan-color "shalwar kameez," the traditional male costume of long shirts and loose pants. Thick brown dust chokes the air.

 New refugees keep pouring in, dazed and weary. Abdul Majnad, 45, a shopkeeper from the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, arrived Wednesday night after border guards confiscated his belongings because he could not pay the requisite bribe.

 Shah Mahmood, a grizzled and husky man who wore the traditional turban and vest of a Pashtun tribesman, said he traveled to Tajabad three days ago from Jalalabad in a truck crammed with 40 refugees. "We were all scared of the bombs and rockets," he said.

Eighty-year-old Khaisia Kan, a bespectacled retired shopkeeper with a beguiling smile, came with his extended family last week. He is old enough to remember vividly the period of stability under the reign of the exiled former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was deposed in 1973.

 "We were happy back then," Khan said, reminiscing about a golden era that preceded the 20 years of civil war that has crippled his homeland. "Now, so many people are being killed, it's not good. The Americans should just come and arrest the terrorists. They should not kill so many innocent people."