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Thursday, 11 October, 2001, 07:42 GMT 08:42 UK
Fleeing the war zone
Inside the Shahid Arbabi Afghan refugee camp in Zahedan, Iran
Inside the Shahid Arbabi refugee camp in Zahedan
Jim Muir

"This war has become darker and darker," said Fatemeh, an Afghan refugee from Kandahar.

"Our country has been completely destroyed. I don't care who's responsible. But when the Americans decided to attack, I was overcome by sadness. I hope all the enemies of Afghanistan will be destroyed."

Fatemeh is one of more than 200,000 refugees who have flooded into the Iranian town of Zahedan over the years of upheaval in Afghanistan. Hardly any of them live in camps.

Iran is already host to more than 2m refugees
Instead, they've swamped Iranian towns and cities, often living in squalid conditions, and putting extra pressure on already scarce resources - especially jobs, and also water, in an area that's been hit by drought for three years running.

Official estimates say there are more than 2.3 million refugees.

Many of them have fled since the Taleban took over most of Afghanistan in 1995.


Many are from the Afghan Shia minority, the Hazara, which has been heavily persecuted by the fanatically Sunni and exclusively Pashtun Taleban.

Yet among the refugees in Zahedan, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about the American and British attacks.

"They want to destroy Islam, they don't want Islam to flourish," said one man.

If they really want to hit the terrorists, they could find some other way

Afghan refugee
"If they really want to hit the terrorists, they could find some other way," said another.

"They're destroying the people. They're not just against Afghanistan, they're against Islam."

Many of the refugees blame the US for helping install the Taleban in the first place.

"Osama bin Laden was the number one American spy, along with the Taleban," said one.

"I'm happy because we see that those who started up the Taleban - the Americans, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan - are those who were hit by them, and it's them who are now having to go after the Taleban," said an unemployed former teacher from Kabul.

Having suffered at the hands of the Taleban, such people might be expected to welcome action against them.

'No solution'

But many fear the attacks may not bring a solution, only more bloodshed and destruction. They are also suspicious and cynical about American intentions.

The same sentiments are shared by the refugees' Iranian hosts.

Despite differences in tone, reformists and hard-liners are agreed on the main lines of national reaction to the crisis: condemnation of the 11 September attacks on America, but condemnation also of the strikes against Afghanistan.

Floods of refugees are straining resources
Iran is fiercely hostile to the Taleban, who emerged from a strain of fundamentalist Sunni Islam which regards Shiism as close to heresy.

The two countries nearly went to war three years ago, after 10 Iranian diplomats were killed by the Taleban.

But Iranian leaders have criticised the US-led onslaught on the grounds that innocent civilians will be the victims, that it may cause further waves of refugees, and that Muslim sentiment risks being outraged.

They also accuse the US of cloaking strategic ambitions for expanded regional influence behind their supposed drive against terrorism.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, has taken the lead in denouncing the Americans in harsh terms. His word is final, and he laid it down at an emergency meeting of the country's Supreme National Security Council on 25 September.

Powerful neighbour

Since then, even the mild-mannered reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, has personally criticised President George W Bush, accusing him of falling prey to the arrogance of power by insisting that all countries must be either with Washington or with "the terrorists". "We are with neither," Mr Khatami said.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami
President Khatami has called for an end to the air strikes
He has also called for an immediate halt to the strikes on Afghanistan, arguing that innocent people are paying the price for atrocities committed elsewhere.

Some reformists - but by no means all - had hoped the crisis would offer a chance for a rapid breakthrough in relations with the US. But any such hope was brusquely slapped down by the leader.

If there is to be a rapprochement, it will not come quickly and easily. One route might be the effort to find a political accommodation in Afghanistan should the Taleban fall.

Iran's cooperation, as a powerful neighbour with strong influence within the Afghan opposition, would be important.

"One problem is, we don't know what the Americans want to do in Afghanistan," said one leading reformist. "But we don't think it will solve the country's crisis."

See also:

02 Oct 01 | Middle East
Iraqi Kurds fear new Islamist group
02 Oct 01 | Middle East
Iran clinches arms deal with Russia
09 Oct 01 | Middle East
Afghan aid convoy leaves Iran
07 Oct 01 | Middle East
Iran's mounting concern
30 Sep 01 | Middle East
Iran accuses West of double standards
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