Afghans in world's biggest refugee camp face disaster as winter tightens its grip

By Kim Sengupta in Herat

04 January 2002

They descended on the car in frenzied waves from their

improvised tents of plastic sheeting, beating on the

windows, waving tattered pieces of registration paper

as proof that they were entitled to be members of the

largest refugee camp in the world.

Desperate for help, these women, some carrying babies,

were just a few hundred of the 120,000 Afghans stuck

at the Maslakh centre, a vast, sprawling and anarchic

camp outside Herat in western Afghanistan. The camp

has seen the biggest influx of the dispossessed. Its

inhabitants face disaster as winter takes grip.

Every week a few hundred come to join those already at

Maslakh. They are what the aid agencies call IDPs

(internally displaced people). People who had seen

drought turn fertile land into dust and stone in the

provinces of Badghis, Ghor and Fariah. The numbers

exploded with the war: before September there were no

more than 30,000 there.

Maslakh has become a byword for the chaos and

confusion that has accompanied much of the aid effort

in Afghanistan in the past. The camp was started nine

years ago by a local aid agency. It was soon growing

out of control. There was little help from

international aid agencies, whose efforts were

undermined by systematic harassment from the Taliban.

Dr Syed Abubakr Rasooli, now the director of the World

Health Organisation in Herat, worked then for the

Ministry of Public Health. He recalls: "A mullah, a

Pashtun peasant from the Kandahar area, was made my

boss. The WHO gave us three motorcycles to visit the

refugees. My boss, the mullah, gave them to the

Taliban. Soon the mullah was driving around in an

air-conditioned Land Cruiser, and the refugees were

not getting what little they had before."

The Taliban enforced their harsh regime in the camps.

Amina Tolah, a 37-year-old health education teacher at

Maslakh, said: "Men and women were working together.

The situation was so serious we simply had to. Then

the Talibs came, they beat the men and took them away

and abused us, calling us prostitutes. We were told to

go home."

In September, with the number of refugees doubling by

the week, and facing a humanitarian disaster, the

International Organisation for Migration took over the

running of the camp. Dan Gill, the organisation's

director in Herat, said: "What we discovered was

shocking. It was a complete disaster. It was the worst

example of a bad situation. The international agencies

had basically given up on Afghanistan, it was a lost


"Maslakh is not a camp, it's a city. We are trying to

get these people to go back home, with support."

But most people at Maslakh have nowhere to go back to.

For many this "city" of scorched earth and dust is

still better than what they came from.

Noorjahan, a frail, bent woman in her sixties from

Badghis, squats in front of the tent of 12 square feet

she shares with her daughter and eight grandchildren.

There are a few tattered blankets for warmth. It is

she and the younger children who suffer most in the

freezing nights.

"It's cold, always so cold, there is no warmth left in

our bodies," she said, hugging her youngest

grandchild, a pretty girl of two.

"We get very little to eat, but back home we would not

get anything at all. We sold everything, our sheep,

our land, but that was not enough. My son died, and we

decided to come for shelter here. But then on the way

my husband died too."

Workers for World Vision who have just visited Badghis

found a land laid bare by the drought. Abdullah

Salamar and his wife, Gulsh, have just come from

there. Three of their children had died, one on the

long trek to Maslakh. "It was our baby," said Gulsh,

looking into the distance, her eyes vacant. "I was so

weak I couldn't suckle my baby, and she went away."

Dr Rasooli said: "They should close the camp, it is

out of control."

"But where do we go to?'' asked Mohammed Bassat, who

had arrived with his four children, leaving the home

where his wife had died. "There is nothing left for us

at home, nothing. Everything is gone. We live in an

accursed land." 


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