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A Report by MSF Communications Officer Diderik van Halsema, Who Recently Returned from Afghan Refugee Camps in Pakistan
March 27, 2001
MSF Holland Communications Officer Diderik van Halsema recently returned from a trip to Pakistan where he visited refugee camps harboring thousands of Afghan refugees, many of whom are receiving little aid or none at all. Here he recalls the day United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan came to see a camp and what the visit meant to a population that fears they've been forgotten by the outside world.
"Kofi Annan is coming and taking us to America!" The rumor spreads uncontrollably through the Jalozai refugee camp.
An hour's drive east of the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar, between 35,000 and 45,000 Afghan refugees settle in a makeshift camp. In the dusty expanse, with temperatures rising to almost 95 degrees already in early March, they are gathered in little tents made out of plastic sheeting. Temperatures will go up to nearly 115 degrees in the middle of summer.
And now the "big man" is coming. The Secretary General of the United Nations is supposed to make a visit to the Jalozai camp and the rumor itself is enough to refuel the refugees' hope that help is on the way.
At the moment, the refugees rely solely on the assistance of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Project Directory of Health (PDH), part of the Commission for Afghan Refugees, supported by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Each has a small clinic in the camp providing basic health care. MSF is also distributing water and building latrines.
Up to 10 times a day, six trucks drive slowly between the 17 water tanks in the camp. Each truck carries between 3,000 and 6,000 liters to bring a total of 350,000 liters per day. Still it is not enough; the target is to deliver 15 liters a day per person but this supply only allows for 6 liters per person per day.
MSF tries to find a better solution. Tim Boulay, MSF's logistician in the camp, looks into the possibility of building a new well within the camp's boundaries, close to the ones MSF is already using nearby.
In a little building, the guard of one of the wells shows MSF volunteers the water pumping equipment. An ancient electricity system provides the energy for a pump that goes down 120 meters. During summer, when the town of Peshawar puts on its air conditioners, there is insufficient electricity to run the pump.
Boulay knows new wells need to be drilled. But northwestern Pakistan faces a severe water shortage and a continuing drought means conditions will deteriorate. The extra demand from the refugees makes the situation more difficult.
"We can begin within a couple of days, if we get the permission," Boulay explains. He tries contracting Afghan refugees who came here years ago and have started there own micro-economy. This includes truck owners, drivers, and well constructors. He purchases locally the material needed to build the latrines.
Once the material arrives, residents of the Jalozai camp decide where new latrines should be built. The camp has 560 but demand is enormous and space is limited. Every week MSF tries to set up an additional 40 to 50 latrines. The people of the camp discuss new locations with the MSF staff. Then residents take up shovels and construct the latrines themselves under MSF supervision.
The Jalozai camp is divided into an old section and a new one. In the old one, accomodations consist of mud houses. They are small and poor, but better than the small plastic tents of the new camp where even a 10-year-old cannot stand up straight.
The old camp and the new camp represent two different communities. The "old" refugees fled Afghanistan in the early '80s, when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
But the refugees in the "new" camp where MSF works do not have official refugee status. As a result, they are not recognized by authorities as refugees and are refused aid. They face unbearable conditions in the new part of Jalozai, deprived from any aid apart from the assistance delivered by MSF and PDH.
A bit to the south of Jalozai there is another camp called Shamshatoo. It's divided into old and new areas as well but the community here is generally better off. There are more NGOs working here. The refugees are recognized by the UNHCR and receive assistance.
Finally Annan arrives in a helicopter, but not at the Jalozai location. Instead he goes to Shamshatoo, to the officially registered refugees. Not to pick them up to take them to America, but to say that the world will not forget them.
Still his message is dark "There will be no solution â€¦ no solution for Afghanistan without the political will to come to one," Annan says.
This is a message to all the parties involved, who are making this conflict, and its effects, so highly complicated: the Taliban, Pakistan, neighboring countries like Iran, the UN, the donor countries and the international community.
But how to explain that to the refugees who sit there and gasp at the whole entourage, the cameras of the media, the security and the shining cars and helicopters? All they want is some improvement in their living conditions. They do not know that they in a way represent a high political game.
And how to explain this to those in the Jalozai camp? No one has a clue what the next day will bring. Going back to Afghanistan is too dangerous. And with they're tenuous status, they can be moved by authorities at any time. All they can do is sit and wait.