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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 23:46 GMT 00:46 UK
The wild border town of Quetta
Some of the Afghan refugees who have already arrived in Quetta
Up to a million Afghan refugees may flood into Pakistan
At least 10,000 Afghan refugees are waiting on the Afghan border near the Pakistani town of Quetta - a place which bristles with weapons and struggles with grinding poverty, writes BBC News Online's Daniel Lak.

For days now, a stream of bemused, bewildered representatives of the world's media have stumbled out of the airport terminal here, on assignment to wait for war.

Everyone here expects things to get much, much worse for Quetta and its already drought-ravaged economy

They get a chilling reminder from a plainclothes policemen who sits on a rickety chair outside the arrivals area. "Please sir (or madam)," he says, "Please read this."

"This" is a small four-page brochure that both welcomes and warns the foreign journalist.

Over the signature of Abid Ali, Quetta's senior superintendent of police, the document tells you to avoid "unnecessary movement around the city" and "always take a police escort."

The authorities are taking no chances.

History of violence

Quetta is, and has been, a rough town. Its ethnic and tribal fault lines are often violent.

On the main Jinnah Avenue, Bata shoe shops and jewellers advertising Rolex watches sit alongside arms and ammunition dealers, each emporium of death replete with a contingent of turbaned tribesmen checking out the merchandise.

A man walks past an arms dealer in Quetta
Quetta is awash with weapons
I once watched the chief minister of Baluchistan, back when Pakistan was a democracy, play 18 holes of golf with two submachine gun-toting body guards in tow.

"Family feud," he explained at the time, "My cousins want to kill me. Not good for politics if they succeed."

But it's not that the people of Quetta lack in social graces or hospitality.

They overwhelm the visitor with gifts and insights into local culture. Even now, with fears of US military strike on Kandahar, just 200 km (125 miles) away over the Afghan border, the vibrancy and warmth of Quettans isn't diminished.


Even so, a young man did confront me, wanting to know if I thought Osama Bin Laden was behind the World Trade Center bombings, and whether the US would provide proof of that.

I followed the instructions in the police handout and took a security guard, a young member of the Baluchistan constabulary called Rahim.

He had a locally made Kalashnikov assault rifle, and a tunic made of rough home-spun cotton.

He thought it unlikely that anyone would bother me.

"No problem sir," he'd say, his only English words, patting his weapon.

We drove through possibly the most ethnically diverse streets in Pakistan.

A UNHCR warehouse near the Pakistani-Afghan border
Aid agencies are preparing for the onslaught
This is where South Asia meets Central Asia, where towering, bearded Pashtoon tribesmen walk alongside Shia Muslims with Mongoloid features, where Turkmen nomads sit in tea stalls, chatting to down country Punjabis.

There are few women in public, but none who are on the street wear the burqa, the shuttlecock-like garment that is so prevalent both in Afghanistan and in Peshawar, 1000 km (650 miles) to the north.

I asked the driver to find me posters of Bin Laden on sale, but all we could find were big glossy prints of Pakistani cricketers or Indian film stars.

A government official had told me earlier that Bin Laden had a following in Quetta: "He is very popular here."

Drought-ravaged economy

Around the corner from the posh Serena Hotel, now overflowing with international media, is the local office of Al Rashid Trust, the charity whose bank accounts were frozen by President George W Bush for alleged links with Bin Laden.

A lurid sign hangs over the door, a painting of one hand gripping a sword, another with a Holy Koran.

Inside are sacks of wheat, hundreds of them, for distribution to the coming tide of Afghan refugees. Half a million or more are expected.

Everyone here expects things to get much, much worse for Quetta and its already drought-ravaged economy.

This is no time, officials told me, to be shutting down or harassing groups doing relief work.

See also:

11 Jan 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugees' unending plight
22 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan's fear of refugee flood
24 Sep 01 | South Asia
Taleban retreat in heavy fighting
25 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan warns of Afghan instability
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