U.S. Bombing and the Afghan Refugee Crisis
by Marc W. Herold
"Bombing Brings Flood of Refugees. Camps Set up as Thousands Flee U.S Attacks"1
"One of UNICEF's young staff members in Herat witnessed a family of three children and their parents locked in an embrace and frozen to death."
"A dirty gray blanket on the hard desert is all that is home for Bibi Gul and her family in the new Afghanistan" [Christina Lamb, December 2001]
POSTED MARCH 16, 2002
Last having eaten a meal begged more than a week ago, Bibi Gul accompanied by her five children, says, "the sky is my roof and the earth is my floor." On Friday morning [December 7], Bibi woke to find her two-year old son Tahir cold and stiff, frozen to death in the rain of western Afghanistan. Four days later, the Bush War for Civilization celebrated the 'liberation' of Kandahar city, whose fate would be returned to a particularly vicious, corrupt warlord and pedophile, Gul Agha.
Yes, the new Afghanistan, born with the forceps of U.S. bombs and missiles.
For years, Afghan civilians, often refugees, have been dying silently from the cold, from poverty, from hunger and from disease.2 Tuberculosis spreads among those weakened by hunger. At the huge Jalozai camp south of Peshawar, "No food, no tents, just unending rows and rows of plastic sheets." In the summer of 2001, tens of thousands of people in the impoverished central mountain region of Hazarajat were reported by aid agencies to be eating grass, leaves and even mixing insects into their food just to survive.3 The mountainous area around Badghis Province is especially stricken: villages are half empty.4 The last animals have been sold off for grain in the village of Siah Sang, and now "families have resorted to selling their own daughters for grain." Children now have exchange value.
The war has magnified these tragedies and numbers, but little note is taken by the U.S. mainstream press or by the agencies of the U.S. Government. Just like the victims who perish under U.S. bombs, those dying silently are 'unworthy bodies' not warranting notice.5 On the other hand, the U.N. agencies and numerous NGO's [Doctors Without Borders, Christian Aid, Action Aid, OXFAM, Feed the Children, Islamic Relief, Caritas Internationalis/Catholic Relief Services, ....] have waged courageous and sometimes effective actions [e.g., UNICEF's measles vaccination campaign] to alleviate misery and death.
After the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the ensuing bitter civil war, nearly 4 million Afghans flooded to neighboring Iran and Pakistan. In the late 1990s, another one million Afghans were uprooted by the lasting drought and the continuing war between the Taliban and Northern Alliance. But since September 11, aid agencies reported another 4-6 million Afghans have been on the move. Afghanistan's major cities were emptied of 70-80% of their inhabitants. On September 16, the U.S. government demanded that Pakistan stop the truck convoys of food into Afghanistan.6
The war refugees must remain 'invisible' because they represent embarrassing evidence of how widespread U.S. bombing has effected Afghan civilians. As more U.S. bombs fell upon hapless Afghan residential neighborhoods and villages, the flow of food aid contracted. Noam Chomsky spoke of 'a silent genocide.' Just during the month of October, U.S. bombing limited the amount of food delivered to Afghanistan to 13,000 tons, or one-fourth the minimum estimated needed to cover those at risk. The U.S. air war has disrupted food and medical supplies, has instilled panic leading to mass exodus, and in some instances has involved the direct bombing of refugee camps an obvious war crime as well as vehicles carrying fleeing refugees and also bombing Red Cross warehouses [twice] and World Food Programme trucks and facilities. For example, on October 22, the World Food Programme's warehouse in Herat was bombed.7 On October 30, the refugee camp at Sholgara in the province of Balkh was subjected to an hour-long midnight U.S. bombing attack in which 14-15 bombs were dropped killing 8 civilians and wounding 9 others.
But, refugees caused by 'our' actions merit little note, whereas refugees caused by policies of U.S.' enemies, are meticulously chronicled, vividly described and the subject of righteous indignation refugees in Kosovo, Kurdistan, Chechnya, etc.. And how many articles in the U.S.' mainstream press bewailed the death of four U.S. soldiers by friendly fire in early December? How many pieces were penned describing the 'American Taliban'? This absence of note by the mainstream in the developed West, is also due to the dearth of "cameras to witness the Afghan tragedy." Dramatic photos can still be catalysts to action in a West desensitized by image overload. In our image-driven, postmodern society, the impact of an image can dwarf most texts.
Yet, texts describing despair of refugees exist. An Associated Press report datelined Chaman Crossing, September 22, read:"Fenced out of Pakistan by a roll of rusty barbed wire, hundreds of Afghan refugees crouched on the barren ground, unprotected against a scorching desert sun, staring bleakly ahead of them. Some had been here at this desolate border crossing for up to five days, desperate to find shelter from what they believe are inevitable American airstrikes on their homeland...the border was closed to all but those with valid travel documents after the United States asked Pakistan to shut down the flow of supplies to the Taliban. But international agencies....have urged Afghanistan's neighbors to reopen borders to those trying to flee..."8A trickle of accounts mostly in the British press paints a picture of life in the refugee camps. Last December, Christina Lamb wrote about the refugees at the Maslakh camp, 50 kilometers west of Herat, set up three years ago to harbor those escaping both drought and fighting in the north:"Most come from the northern provinces of Faryab, Ghor and Sar-e-Pul as well as Ghazni in central Afghanistan, mountainous places to which the World Food Programmme was giving food aid but stopped because of the bombing. Now their villages cannot be reached because the passes are cut off."9Lamb reported how every night as the temperature dipped well below zero, as many as 40 people die of cold and starvation, a number totaling 1,200 per month, about a single World Trade Tower's victims. Lamb was the first western journalist Farnaz Fassihi had written about Maslakh in November to reach the Maslakh camp since the U.S bombing started. She tells how she got out of her car, but something was wrong:"Many of the people were not moving. The children were not playing, not even crying, and many were too weak to walk. Some sucked at their clothes and hair, seeking nutrition anywhere. Others lay in bundles on the ground. Old women stretched out hands, fingers blackened and eaten away by frostbite...I have been to most of the big Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan as well as many refugee camps in Africa but I have never seen people in such harrowing conditions."Why? The Herat, Helmand, and Kandahar provinces were subjected to intense U.S. bombing as of the middle of October, preventing relief supplies from reaching Maslakh, a fact quietly glossed over by the Western journalist, but explicitly underscored by Farnaz Fassihi.10 Farnaz describes similar scenes of agony and desperation in Maslakh also reporting on 42 refugees who had died of the cold overnight in late November. He comments on how relief agencies evacuated their foreign workers in early October and "then U.S. and British airstrikes put an end to all relief efforts." In November, Caritas reported Afghan refugees in Quetta [Pakistan] were dying of hypothermia, starvation and disease. The ferocious bombing of Kandahar as of late November drove tens of thousands towards the border zones.11 In just three weeks, a new refugee camp comprising 1,500 tents and 9,000 persons was established near Spin Boldak by a charity linked to the royal house of the United Arab Emirates. Those in tents were the lucky ones. Steele writes:"Along the main road, where they had been dumped by lorries and buses, were the most abject of the new poor. They sat among their bundles waiting for the strength to move into the camp."This camp was one in four set up in the border area in mid-November, meaning the bombing prompted between 50-100,000 to leave their homes to find safety.
Zeinab, a 20-year old mother of four whose home in Maslakh is a thin brown blanket spread on the dusty ground and who says she feeds her children with grass and weeds, addresses the United States government:"No one cares about us. We are dying of hunger and thirst. We are sleeping in the cold night after night....Do you know if anywhere in the world there are people suffering like us?"Writing in The Guardian [January 3, 2002] Doug McKinley describes reality in the huge Maslakh camp, where 100 refugees were dying every day from exposure and starvation.12 McKinley notes that very little aid was reaching the estimated 350,000 displaced persons at Maslakh. Only four bakeries were operating at Maslakh attempting to feed up to 100,000 people a day, but able only to turn out 8,000 loaves a day. By early March, the UN's World Health Organization reported a decrease in infant mortality rates from 0.47 per 10,000 in 12/01 to 0.20 per 10,000 by 2/02, or a death rate of 50 persons per week falling to 25 per week.13 The success was attributed to clinics being opened, better provision of clothing and shelter, the establishment of nutrition centers for children and improved sanitation.
Children are most vulnerable and the small size of the graves around the camp "is clear evidence that most of the buried are children." Seventy percent of Afghanistan's population is women and children, and children are known to be the most vulnerable to starvation and disease. War widows are acute victims and the BBC's David Loyn reported that those compelled to eat only wild clover and roots in the villages of Baghdis Province were the destitute war widows.14 In October, the UNICEF wrote about "a generation of Afghan children now at risk."15 Eric Laroche, UNICEF representative noted how during the winter of 2000/1, in the area surrounding Herat, 110 children froze to death in a refugee camp when temperatures dropped to minus 26 degrees Celsius. He continued,"One of UNICEF's young staff members in Herat witnessed a family of three children and their parents locked in an embrace and frozen to death."Alex Perry described a very similar situation in the Dehadi camp, housing 15,000 refugees, outside Mazar-i-Sharif in early December:"Temperatures will drop to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and the filthy roadside ditch from which the refugees fetch their gray water will freeze."16Winters in many parts of Afghanistan are brutal and the displacement caused by war and the U.S. bombing has amplified the vulnerability of weaker groups. In the refugee camps, UNICEF reports that one in every three children under five is destined to die from preventable diseases. UNICEF and other aid organizations sought to move emergency relief and pursue vaccination campaigns even as the war was unfolding.
In a report from northern Afghanistan in late November, Alex Perry describes life in a refugee tent,"Imagine living with your family, brothers, sister, children, their wives and husbands, and children, in a tent the size of a car trunk. Imagine that tent is waist-high made from sticks ands scraps, sacks, blankets, has no floor and no sides so that the freezing wind and dust storms find it no opposition at all...I have been begged by fathers to take their children, angrily led by the hand of a husband see his wife lying unconscious from malnutrition, and, again and again, asked to explain why aid isn't coming. On Monday night the mere sight of my health reduced a 75-year-old man to tears."17Why isn't aid coming? Primarily two reasons, both directly derivative of U.S actions: . The fear and danger instilled on relief convoys; and . The lawlessness resulting from the total breakdown of any semblance of government. Alex Perry described the situation around Mazar-i-Sharif in early December, as:"Agencies have to pay a 'tax' to a military commander around every mountain pass. Pilfering is rife: Alliance soldiers and local aid workers divert much of the food, medicine and blankets to their families or to bazaars."The situation during the first months of 2002 is described by Rory McCarthy in a couple of fine articles in The Guardian.18 During just three weeks of January, 13,000 people poured into southwest Pakistan at the border town of Chaman. Another 40,000 were in camps on the Afghan side of the border. The fresh influx of refugees after the Taliban defeat was unexpected.19 Quoting the Medecins Sans Frontieres [MSF] group, McCarthy says,"Nearly all the refugees arriving at the camps tell the same story of violence and insecurity across huge swaths of southern Afghanistan. Aid agencies have not yet returned to Kandahar and, because of the poor security, it will be weeks before food can be distributed to the remote villages where it is needed most. "The thieves came at night into our home and they looted everything we had. I tried to stop them and they beat me...Now we don't have anything. The Taliban government was good because it was a religious government. Now the people in charge are the ones who were thieves before the Taliban came,"...said Mansum, 32, who fled his village in Helmand."A month later, McCarthy reported on the humanitarian crisis ravaging northern Afghanistan. The MSF group said more children were now attending the agency's feeding centers than before September 11. At least one in six children at the centers in Faryab province was severely malnourished and, overall, infant mortality rates had doubled since August 2001.20 McCarthy noted how increasing numbers of people were selling their last animals and personal belongings to gain access to food. Many people showed signs of a poor diet with scurvy reappearing.
The faces of dire poverty in this destitute land, are many, but I dwell here on just one:"Rahim Dad had 8 mouths to feed, and the drought had stolen his crops, his oxen and his goats, so he sold the most valuable asset he had left his 12-year old daughter. "I sold my daughter for money because of the hunger," he says shivering with fever in the chill of his mud and chaff house. "I sold my daughter to save the other people in my family, to save them from dying."21As a direct result of modern war and the terrible drought, the International Federation of the Red Cross reported last February 8, that girls, some as young as 10 years old, are being 'sold' as 'brides' for as little as a 100 kilogram sack of flour in a desperate struggle for survival in parts of Herat and Farah provinces.22 In Jamrud, Pakistan, Afghan girls as young as 5 and up to 17, are regularly being auctioned off for $80 to $100, sold into prostitution or, if they are lucky, they join the harems in the Middle East.23
Growing ethnic tensions in regions controlled by warlords of the Northern Alliance were leading a mass exodus of Pashtuns southward, fearing looting, killings, and rape. In the wake of the Taliban's fall, the new horror of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Northern Alliance is unfolding, directed against Pashtuns. Thousands of Pashtuns are fleeing from all over Afghanistan, seeking refuge in Peshawar or Quetta. Contrary to the fables spun in Western media, the women of Afghanistan today feel no safer than under the Taliban. Most retain the burqa out of conviction or fear. Most want any international peace keeping force...anything but Dostum and the Northern Alliance. Zubeida Malik spoke with a doctor in a woman's hospital who said,"it isn't safe for women to go out now, the Taliban were strict but at least they didn't touch us."24Zubeida spoke with refugees from northern, eastern and southern Afghanistan and all told of random killings, rape, and mutilations.
And again, it is the very poor who have remained in the villages of hunger, cold and disease, just as it was the very poor who remained in Kandahar and Kabul when U.S. bombs fell. The better-off villagers fled to refugee camps. Aid efforts have sought to target these villages. Some Afghans are beginning to return to their homes in the cities now that the U.S bombardment of cities has subsided. Listen to Abdul Malook, 20, a Pashtun Baloch from a village four hours north of Kunduz who fled with his family to Peshawar and whose 'home' is the Jalozai refugee camp."Back home I used to have dreams dreams of getting more comforts for my family, a bigger house, more land and maybe an Afghan carpet shop of my own. But now I stopped having dreams. When I sit with my family, we just talk about home and the lives we used to have...we are living on hope but we don't have dreams."25The U.S. bombing has once again driven Afghans out of their homes and often their country, making them into insecure refugees. For Afghan women, Saba Gul Khattak argues, what mattered most was that they had to flee their homes in order to be secure.26 Men had more awareness of whose bombs were raining down. Wars are associated with men and wide-open spaces. Homes are associated [socially constructed as] with women and with the family hence belong to the smaller, private sphere and "are generally considered outside the purview of war." Yet, the U.S. air war [like many other modern wars] has destroyed home and community with manifold implications. Khattak's interviews with Afghan female refugees presents a mosaic of themes about"The destruction resulting from war, deaths due to rockets and bombs and the yearning to go back to the place that was home and that lies destroyed. Many talk about the pain of returning under successive governments only to find the same destruction and senseless war continued and they were as insecure as they had been previously...their house is not 'home' -- it is a place, a mud house, a rented house, a camp. Or a tent. It is not home."To return to a house, not to a home. What they will find is unknown...structures demolished, interiors looted, alleys littered with BLU-97 cluster bombs, enormous craters, unexploded Mark 82, 500 lb. bombs, all in the name of enduring freedom.
Editor's note: There is no logic to this genocide unless one considers the motive of the elite; that is their "concern" about overpopulation. War is one of the ways in which the elite control population. Always has been, always will be unless and until we stop it.
1 Jonathan Steele, "Bombing Brings Flood of Refugees. Camps Set up as Thousands Flee US Attacks," The Guardian [November 21, 2001].
2 Representative first-hand accounts of Afghan refugees are widely available. Two excellent ones are : "No Food, No Tents, Just Unending Rows and Rows of Plastic Sheets," Out There News [December 2, 2001], and ""With These Deaths, I Can't Even Fake a Smile," Out There News [December 23, 2001], both available at
3 James E. Jennings, "U.S Wages Overkill in Afghanistan," Newsday [December 11, 2001].
4 David Loyn, "Hunger and Death in Afghan Villages," BBC News Online [February 4, 2002].
5 An outstanding article exploring this issue is David Edwards, "This Killing Silence. Why is the Mainstream Media Ignoring the Mass Deaths of Afghan Civilians," The Ecologist 32,2 [March 2002]: 52-3.
6 David Edwards, op.cit.
7 Data from Marc W. Herold, Appendix 4. Daily Casualty Count of Afghan Civilians Killed in U.S Bombing Attacks, October 7 until Present Day.
8 Afghan Refugees Wait at Border," Associated Press [September 22, 2001].
9 Christina Lamb, "They Call This Slaughterhouse," Sunday Telegraph [December 9, 2001].
10 Farnaz Fassihi, "Starvation and Death in Afghanistan," Star-Ledger Staff [November 30, 2001].
11 Steele, op. cit.
12 Doug McKinley, "Refugees Left in the Cold at 'Slaughterhouse' Camp," The Guardian [January 3, 2002].
13 IRIN , "Afghanistan: Mortality Rate Drops at Maslakh," IRIN News Report [March 6, 2002].
14 David Loyn, "Life Hanging by a Thread," BBC News Online [February 15, 2002].
15 UNICEF, "A Generation of Afghan Children Now at Risk" [October 2, 2001], at : <http://www.unicef.org/noteworthy/afghanistan/story2.htm>
16 Alex Perry, "Hunger and Despair in the Camps," Time Asia [December 3, 2001].
17 Alex Perry, "Lying to Refugees," Time.com [November 23, 2001].
18 Rory McCarthy, "Fresh Wave of Refugees Flees New Regime," The Guardian [January 21, 2002], and " Afghans Flee Hunger and Strife," The Guardian [February 22, 2002].
19 Stephanie King, "Fresh Influx of Afghan Refugees Gather at Pakistani Border," Disaster Relief [January 3, 2002].
20 Medecins Sans Frontieres, "MSF Report: Alarming Food Crisis in Northern Afghanistan" [February 21, 2002], at: <http://www.zmag.org/content/TerrorWar/MSFTerror.cfm>
21 Suzanne Goldenberg, "Afghans Selling Children for Food," Dawn [February 5, 2002].
22 "Disgrace to Humanity. Afghan Girls on Sale for 100kg Wheat," The News [February 10, 2002].
23 Andrew Bushel, "Sale of Children Thrives in Pakistan," Washington Times [January 21, 2002].
24 Zubeida Malik, "Better the Devil You Know?" The Ecologist 32,1 [February 2002]:57
25 "No Food, No Tents. Just Unending Rows and Rows of Plastic Sheets," Out There News [December 3, 2001].
26 Saba Gul Khattak, "The U.S Bombing of Afghanistan: A Women-Centered Perspective" [New York: Social Science Research Center website, viewpoint essay #6, 2001]
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