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Tuesday, 30 January, 2001, 07:54 GMT
Stranded in no-man's land
The Tajik-Afghan border
Most of the Afghans are ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks
By Central Asia correspondent Catherine Davis

A maze of rutted tracks wind their way across the semi-arid plain. From the Tajik side, there's no river to cross before reaching the so-called island.


Security is an issue, too. This is an area where drug smuggling is known to be common

The River Pianj flows to the south of it. Where exactly the border runs is a moot point.

Little grows on the islands. The Afghans have built make-shift shelters out of reeds. Some are no more than holes in the ground.

Most of the Afghans are ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen. They fled their homes several months ago when the Taleban advanced.

"We only brought with us what we could carry", explains a turbaned man. " We left all our livestock."

Afgan refugees
Eleven thousand Afghans are marooned
Some of the women are veiled. Most stay inside or close to their cluster of huts. "We just want to go where there is peace," one mother says.

"How could we not be frightened? Of course, the best thing would be to go home. Sometimes," she adds, "we are forced to flee to where the mountains are."

The woman points to a wall of cliff-like hills at the northern edge of the plain. It's to that area that many of the refugees retreat when there's fighting across the river.

Some places on the islands are only a kilometre from the frontline. Many shelters are within range of artillery positions. Sporadic shelling has been reported too.

Most of those on the islands are women, children and elderly people. But among them are also armed men - supporters of the anti-Taliban alliance, led by Ahmed Shah Masoud.


Sixty per cent of people on one island are said to be suffering from some sort of illness, including typhoid, malaria and tuberculosis

The presence of armed men has made delivering aid more complicated.

The head of the UNHCR in Tajikistan, Taslim Rahman, says "if you provide assistance, then it might appear you are supporting the fighting instead of the civilian population."

Security is an issue, too. This is an area where drug smuggling is known to be common.

"One must assume" explains the UN Resident Coordinator in Tajikistan, Matthew Kahane, "that any movement of people across the border is likely to be accompanied by attempts to move illegal narcotics across."

The UN has repeatedly urged the authorities to admit women, children and non-combatant men into mainland Tajikistan where, it says, they can be properly protected and assisted.

An Afghan man on the Tajik-Afghan border
The Afghans fled their homes several months ago
Sixty per cent of people on one island are said to be suffering from some sort of illness, including typhoid, malaria and tuberculosis. The drinking water is unsafe and food in short supply.

At least forty people are reported to have died because of sickness, disease or war wounds.

Tajikistan has refused to admit the displaced Afghans. It's voiced security and economic concerns; a fear the influx might unleash an uncontrollable wave of refugees.

For now, it seems the Afghans can only stay where they are, unable to go north or south.

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See also:

15 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Tajikistan jails Islamists
28 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
Tajiks vote for peace
16 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
Bomb kills Tajik minister
17 Aug 99 | Asia-Pacific
Explosions anger Tajikistan
03 May 98 | Despatches
Tajikistan's uncertain cease-fire
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