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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 14:57 GMT
A refugee's ordeal
Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan
Thousands of Afghans live in Pakistan's refugee camps
By the BBC's Jill McGivering at the Jalozai refugee camp

Fatima says she's 14, but standing there in her crisp blue and white school uniform, thin faced and undersized, she looks far younger.

Ruins of a house in Kabul where four children are said to have been killed
Fear of the US strikes drove Fatima and her aunt out of Kabul
She hops uneasily from foot to foot, squirming with embarrassment as we ask her questions. We've caught her after school - a grand name for a few mud rooms set round a dirt yard. A scrap of broken metal in the branches of a tree acts as a makeshift school bell.

It's meagre here but Old Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar is actually one of Pakistan's better refugee camps - home to several thousand long term Afghan refugees.

Fatima is already used to it. She's been living in the orphanage here since her mother, father and three brothers were killed in Kabul. She was only five when it happened but when she talks about it, she still cries.

She'd been playing in her aunt's house when the bomb fell on their home - a direct hit, wiping out the whole family. Except her.

Second escape

Now, she's cheated death again, with a second dramatic escape from Afghanistan, this time fleeing US bombs. Fatima had gone back to Kabul at the beginning of September to visit her aunt. It wasn't good timing.

"Everyone was so frightened after 11 September," she said. "When the bombing started, the sound of the explosions was terrible. We couldn't sleep. Other people dug themselves bomb shelters - but we didn't have a man in the house so we couldn't. We just crouched in a corner."

Refugees in Peshawar making Afghan carpets
Carpet weavers: Fatima's aunt was one too before she fled

Fatima's aunt told us much more. We went with Fatima to meet her, a tough woman, with a challenging, direct stare.

She was widowed in fighting in Kabul years ago - and until recently, survived by hand weaving carpets inside her home. Until a few days ago, she'd never been outside Afghanistan. Now she too is a refugee.

We sat together on the floor of a bare room which is now their home, the name of the charity which owns it stamped in ink round the walls.

"We decided to flee Kabul when our neighbours were killed," she told me.

Neighbours' tragedy

"We heard the explosion in the night but were too frightened to go outside. Some of the fragments flew into our house too. When we went out at day break, women were screaming and tearing at their clothes. My neighbour's home was in ruins and she was there, weeping - her husband and two children had been killed."

An Afghan woman and her child cross a steep mountain pass south-west of Peshawar
Fatima and her aunt escaped over the mountains into Pakistan
She told me they paid traffickers to smuggle them to the border with Pakistan, a long journey with nothing to eat but a few boiled potatoes. When she tried to tell the next part of the story, she broke down, covering her face with her hands and crying silently.

"The Pakistani border guards said we had to give them $30 each to go through," she said at last. "Of course we didn't have it." She held out her hand to me - the half moon of the nails were stained black, the colour of dried blood. "The guards whipped us," she said.

She tried to pull down the shoulder of Fatima's blouse to show the bruises as Fatima wriggled in embarrassment. "They beat her black and blue."

That night, they found themselves stranded on the wrong side of the closed border, with thousands of other refugees, mostly women, children and the elderly. With little food or shelter, many were already ill.

Fatal journey

"Just that night I saw 12 children die," she said. "Old people were dying too. Pregnant women were struggling to deliver their babies alive."

Children hiding from the strikes in Kabul
Those who remain in Kabul are forced into makeshift bomb shelters
The next day they set off again, this time trying to sneak across the mountains into Pakistan - a gruelling journey on foot which took two long days. She described children and old people dropping dead from disease and exhaustion along the way, buried where they fell.

They finally reached safety - the cold safety of this bleak refugee camp, with nothing left from their former lives.

Fatima's aunt seemed dazed. They left everything behind, put in the translator, everything from the television set to the goat. I wondered what Fatima's aunt would have to say about the American propaganda leaflets dropped along with bombs, protesting friendship. Her face took on a sudden fury when I asked her about the international strikes.

'You can't catch Bin Laden'

"You can't catch Osama Bin Laden," she said. "He's up in the mountains with enough supplies to last years. You're punishing a whole country because of one man."

Injured child near Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan
The Taleban says up to 900 people have been killed in the attacks
She was stiff with angry defiance. "It's not the Taleban who are dying, she said, "it's the widows and orphans, the elderly and the poor. We've been at war for the last 23 years - what was left for America to come and attack?"

When we go back to Islamabad, I switch on the news to catch the latest reports. The presenter is talking animatedly about bunker busters and the new deployment of airships.

Multi-coloured graphics show exploding bombs across a map of Afghanistan. It could almost be a video game. Then we're shown the now familiar streaks of missile comets flaring across black skies with a terrible beauty.

The Taleban officials say hundreds of ordinary people have now been killed. The US politicians say that's gross exaggeration, propaganda.

Stuck outside the country, I just can't know - I can't even be sure if the story Fatima and her aunt have told me is true or not.

But as I watch the next wave of missiles flashing through the night like fireworks, I can't help but wonder how many Fatimas and their aunts are underneath in the darkness, crouched together in a corner of their house, too frightened to sleep.

The BBC's Jill McGivering
"They paid traffickers to smuggle them to the border with Pakistan"
See also:

19 Oct 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Plight of the refugees
19 Oct 01 | South Asia
Chaos as Afghans flee bombed city
18 Oct 01 | Education
A refugee's story
18 Oct 01 | South Asia
Taleban return 'stolen' aid
12 Oct 01 | South Asia
Refugee agency 'failing Afghans'
18 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugees: How to help
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