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Wednesday, 30 January, 2002, 15:29 GMT
Eyewitness: Afghan refugees' hunger
Afghan camp
No-one is sure how many people live in Afghan camps
By the BBC's David Loyn

Afghanistan now has pledges of aid worth more than $4bn and the authorities face the task of reconstruction.

The country's interim leader Hamed Karzai has been to Washington to discuss aid and the future of the American-led military campaign.

But all this must seem very distant to people in the remoter parts of Afghanistan, where there can be little prospect of an improvement from the worst effects of years of war and drought.

In the west, the poorest region of the country, many are still making their way to refugee camps.

We need some help from these foreign offices and our government to go back home again

Former shopkeeper
Any foreigner walking in the Maslak camp in western Afghanistan is met with a wall of people waving pieces of paper complaining that they are not being fed.

It is possibly the world's largest camp of internally displaced people - refugees in their own country. But no one quite knows how many people are here.

There are big UN agencies like the World Food Programme. But there is always a balance to be struck - they cannot make grain freely available or they would destroy the local economy.

So they register people according to need. Thousands of people here claim they are not being fed because, for whatever reason, they cannot register. It is a fatal catch.

Local parliament

They have organised a Shura, a parliament in the camp. Its leader Abdul Kahim told me that people are not starving yet, but they are hungry and they are vulnerable.

The camp manager, Mark Petsold of the UN's International Organisation for Migration was contemptuous of the Shura. He denies that anyone here is hungry.

"We have enough food," he said. "We have problems in this camp, we know about the problems."

Their solution, he said, is re-registration.

Woman sits in tent at displaced people's camp
Refugees need help to return home

It is a process that could take weeks. The camp sprawls across several miles of desert with tents and mud huts the size of dog kennels pushed together.

It will be like taking the census for a city. Those who are unregistered have to beg for food among the poorest.

Marzi, who is nursing a new baby, told me that her family - 14 people living in a small tent - had sold blankets they were given by one agency in order to buy food.

"We need a tent or something to live here because of coldness," she said.

People did not come here easily, but only left their homes and farms once their animals were dead and there was nothing left to eat. Others came since the American bombing to escape the war.


They all want to go home.

"At first we need peace here," said a shopkeeper who ran when Uzbek horsemen drove him out of his village in the north. "The second time we need some help from these foreign offices and our government to go back home again, we need our life. We like our place, we like our motherland."

The seed bank could provide one way out for the future. It is run by Oxfam, and will enable farmers to return home and plant in time for this year's harvest.

So how does this system work?

Child in camp trying to eat a plant
There is not enough food to go around
Seed is given directly to the farmers but on a condition that after a successful harvest they return the same amount of the seed that they've received from Oxfam.

The seed is then redistributed.

How is this going to encourage people to leave the refugee camps and go home?

Oxfam's Aziz Hakimi said: "Basically one of the problems that makes the movement of the population come to the refugee camps is the lack of the seed in their place of origin, so in fact when you're supplying or you can provide the seed in the place of origin we think that it is going to encourage people to return back to their areas."

But it will take a lot of seed to get the hundreds of thousands of people to return from camps like Maslak.

Rebuilding Afghanistan from the bottom-up is a huge task.

See also:

15 Jan 02 | South Asia
US to unfreeze Afghan assets
15 Jan 02 | South Asia
Arms cache found near US base
14 Jan 02 | Americas
New captives arrive on Cuba
14 Jan 02 | Media reports
Afghan forces face uphill struggle
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