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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 13:34 GMT 14:34 UK
Afghans dread approaching conflict
Afghan refugees at the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan
In the last year 750,000 people have fled the fighting and drought
By Kate Clark in north-eastern Afghanistan

The United Nations has called the situation in Afghanistan the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

Three quarters of a million Afghans have left their homes since last summer, fleeing drought and war.


Before the Taleban came we were farmers. They put pressure on us. We had no choice but to take up arms and defend our lives

Mohammed Ayub, a Northern Alliance soldier
The refugees have caught the world's attention - yet those Afghans who stay in their homes are often hardly any better off. Many have no choice but to keep on living right up against the frontline.

People in Dashti Qala in north-eastern Afghanistan do their best to forget that they are living in a war zone. They are about as far from Taleban headquarters as you can get in Afghanistan.

But this town is bracing itself for another Taleban offensive. It's summer - fighting season.

'Forced to fight'

The anti-Taleban alliance has been pushed back into a small north-eastern corner of the country. People here view the Taleban as invaders. The troops are mainly local men, some little more than boys.


There is nowhere else to go. All the people who have lost their homes are living in tents in the desert. We don't have the money to move to a safer place

Refugee Zahir Utaali
"Before the Taleban came we were farmers. They put pressure on us. We had no choice but to take up arms and defend our lives," said Mohammed Ayub, a Northern Alliance soldier.

The troops here have little in the way of military hardware. The difficult terrain has proved a more effective defence. Even so, the Taleban captured large areas of this province last autumn.

This opposition held area is green and fertile, but the Taleban are constantly threatening, and the people dread becoming refugees and cling to their land and homes.

Last resort

Zahir Utaali comes from just across the river in what's now no-man's land. He first became a refugee in 1999 when the Taleban burned down his town.

Fighter from the Northern Alliance commanded by Ahmed Shah Masood
Opposition forces say they are forced to fight by Taliban aggression
He's tried to return three times, each time becoming more impoverished. Now, he works as a cook - still within striking distance of the Taleban guns.

"There is nowhere else to go. All the people who have lost their homes are living in tents in the desert. We don't have the money to move to a safer place," said Zahir.

The refugee camps are the last resort for refugees who have escaped only with their lives.

Thousands fled the fighting in this province last year. The UN and aid agencies provide tents and some wheat, but not much else.

Afghans are facing impossible choices. Away from their lands and homes, they fall into destitution. If they stay, they risk death and destruction.

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See also:

02 May 01 | South Asia
Refugee chief urges Afghan ceasefire
30 Apr 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's civil war 'insane'
14 Feb 01 | South Asia
UN warns of Afghan catastrophe
30 Jan 01 | South Asia
Concern grows for Herat refugees
29 Nov 00 | South Asia
Urgent UN appeal for Afghanistan
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