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Mon, Nov 05, 2001 - Page 5 News List

Refugees crowding Iranian border

FLEEING AND FORGOTTEN Attention has focused on Afghan refugees trying to get to Pakistan, but another refugee crisis on the border with Iran is being ignored


She cowered behind her family's makeshift shelter, too nervous or traumatized to look up, except to shoot anxious glances at her husband as he described their desperate plight.

On her lap lay their young son, squirming in pain until she covered him with a shawl. The woman's husband, Abdul Rahman, said the boy was two years old. But thin and badly undernourished under his wrappings, he looked much younger -- almost a baby.

Sitting silently next to them on the plastic sheeting was the couple's other son, aged four. His brilliant blue eyes sparkled even as the dust swirled about his face and his mother began to sob into her shawl. "We are destitute," said Rahman, arms spread wide for emphasis, almost encompassing their whole, tiny world.

A blanket slung over a long-handled shovel and a borrowed bicycle was their only shelter. "We have been broken," he said. "Completely broken."

This family is part of the growing number of refugees now rapidly congregating at the southern end of Iran's border with Afghanistan.

With so much attention centred on those trying to get into Pakistan, this other looming refugee crisis has been largely ignored.

But Iran is also keeping its borders closed, the authorities there unwilling to add to the estimated 2.5 million Afghan refugees already in the country after years of conflict and drought. Border guards have orders to shoot, and there are reports of deaths and injuries among those trying to cross illegally.

Already serious, an expected rush of 100,000 refugees -- as the American bombing continues and winter rapidly approaches -- can only mean that these conditions become much, much worse.

The main reception area is at Makaki, near the Iranian border town of Zabol, a hastily-constructed camp about 8km inside a Taliban-held area of Afghanistan. There are not enough tents. People who have arrived in the past week have been left to find their own shelter.

They congregate around the few bee-hive shaped, derelict farmhouses -- relics from when, before the three-year drought, this was an area of intense, fertile cultivation. They erect windbreaks from whatever they have brought with them or whatever they can find.

At least 22 families had trekked from the northern city of Mazar-e- Sharif, 620km away, to reach Makaki camp. But Rahman added that along the way he had heard that there might be as many as 2,000 families heading in that direction. If they were all to arrive, then the camp would be simply overwhelmed.

Already, according to Abdul Laal Zaad Raheem, the local Taliban border commander, there are more than 7,500 people in the camp, with a further 300 to 350 families now waiting to get in. "For the past six days people have been coming here and they do not have a place to stay or medicine or doctors," he said. "There is nothing here for them to gain assistance. We ask all the agencies of the world to help us."

Around the camps, Taliban fighters take on the role of impromptu policemen. Whenever we stopped to talk to people, a curious crowd would gather. Until, that is, they were chased away by young Taliban wielding lengths of metal taken from around packing cases.

Two men undeterred by this came forward to show handfuls of shrapnel and alloy fragments. "It comes from cruise missiles and the bombardment," said one, Said Abdullah, from a village near Kandahar.

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