In Afghanistan, it is possible to go from hell to hell. The first circle of hell is the Waiting Area, the faeces-encrusted dustbowl in which 60,000 Afghans rot along their frontier with Pakistan at Chaman–a bone-dry, sand-blasted place of patched bedouin tents, skinny camels, infested blankets and skin disease. There are laughing children with terrible facial sores, old women of 30, white-bearded, dark-turbaned men who from huts of dry twigs look with suspicion and astonishment at Westerners.
They are a leftover of the last Afghan war, the one we are supposed to believe is over, although they are living proof that hostilities have not ended. At least 40,000 of the Pashtu refugees cannot go home because their people are still persecuted in the north of the country. But Pakistan no longer wants this riff-raff of poor and destitute on its squeaky-clean border.
So the United Nations, that great saviour of the dispossessed, has discovered another vile place for these people. A second circle of hell, 40 miles west of Kandahar, it is a grey, hot desert, reached through minefields, shot through with blow-torch winds and black stones, haunted by great, creased mountains and fine sand hills that move like waves.
The United Nations has drilled wells for the 60,000–boring more than 20 metres (60ft) for water–yet few UN officials can do more than shake their heads when they stand in this future midden. It is called Zheray Dasht–“yellow desert” in Urdu–because of the flowers that carpet the sand after rain. But it hasn’t rained here for seven years.
Roy Oliff, of the UN High Commission for Refugees, describes the decision-making to us with almost teutonic efficiency as he stands amid this desolation. “There is a political need to move them from Chaman: they may not have a choice,” he says. “This was the only place the Afghan government would let us have. We didn’t get a choice. The local people on the main road didn’t want the displaced persons near their villages in case they took away employment and used their scarce water resources. This area is reasonably [sic] free of mines. We’re not anticipating much resistance. If they get water and food, there’ll be a flood of people here, not resistance. Five thousand people will be housed in 12 settlements.”
Across the hard desert floor, hundreds of empty, dark-brown tents flap in the wind. There are latrines and vast tented reception areas and land for each family on which–if the water holds out in the unending drought–they can plant trees and graze animals. “It takes them a week to build a mud-walled home,” Mr Oliff tells us. Note here the UN-speak.
No choice for the refugees. No choice for the UN. Little resistance from the refugees. That’s how the UN talked in Bosnia as they aided the Serbs in their ethnic cleansing by trucking Muslims from city to city. It isn’t Mr Oliff’s fault. When I gently raise the issue of the UN’s collective conscience, always supposing so sensitive a creature exists within the world’s most bureaucratic institution, he looks at me with some distress. “Everyone involved in this project has misgivings and is making the best of it,” he says.
The truth, which is as scarce as water in Afghan-istan, is that Pakistan has already severely limited the ability of humanitarian workers in the border camps and that the Afghan authorities in Kandahar don’t want the refugees too close to their own city. There are quite a few Afghan-Arab families in the frontier camps–al-Qa’ida families among them–and several Taliban sympathisers. Spin Boldak, across the old Durrand line from Chaman, was the very last stronghold of the black-turbaned misogynists last December. The Afghans don’t want them infecting Kandahar again.
Mohammed Godbedin, of the UNHCR in Chaman, says at least 50 Afghan-Arab families came to the local camps–(“They all came together, not individually,” he says) although many of these families existed long before the days of al-Qa’ida. The remainder of the refugees are Kochi, nomads whose livestock died in the drought, and who never had homes. In a few days, the first of the displaced of Chaman and Spin Boldak will be taken to visit the Yellow Desert, to decide for themselves if they are prepared to move.
But this is a mere ritual. Pakistani and Afghan officials will make the final decision, with the UN’s familiar compliance. The refugee leaders will be trucked to the Kandahar-Herat desert highway, then led along a sand trail marked by red and white rocks. On either side of these markers are land-mines left by the mujahedin during the war against the Soviet occupation. “They are vehicle mines, not anti-personnel mines so they won’t blow up under people,” one UN official says helpfully.
Unless, of course, the refugees acquire a clapped-out lorry and drive on the wrong side of the markers. Beyond a former Russian military fortress, its tank revetments still evident amid the grey muck, the desert flattens. This is where the land is “reasonably” clear of mines. And where the UN has built its new refugee camp.
Things might be different if the warlord battles ended in the north, if the Americans allowed the international peace-keeping forces to move out of Kabul and collect the weapons in the north and damp down the ethnic fires. More than half the frontier refugees could then go back to their homes. But Afghanistan is becoming more lawless by the week. Refugees remain the linguistic definition of much of this country. And the Yellow Desert, the latest UN prison for the 60,000 destitute of Chaman and Spin Boldak, will soon be on all our maps.