Kabul Weekly - No 99


Returnees die of cold in camps

By Abdul-Akbar

Leila and Hanna, two journalists and activists form Sweden’s Women’s Network, got to know Afghan women at the Beijing Conference and since then developed an in interest in the developments in Afghanistan.

Three weeks ago, they decided to use their annual holiday to come to Afghanistan to share their experiences with Afghan women and make a documentary about women and children’s lives.

One day, on their way from [the Kadul district of] Khayr Khana towards the centre of the city, near the Police Township they noticed torn out tents on the side of the road. They went in and saw the horrible lives of those inside form a close distance.

“The children were shivering because of the cold,” says Leila, describing the camp. “There were braziers everywhere, with people crowding around them. The people in the camp are living in terrible conditions. The situation is so awful that even though I have travelled around the world as a reporter, I started crying and could not continue reporting. Inside the tent, we could see that the ground was wet and children were sleeping right there. One woman who had come back from Iran said life for her was a humiliation.”

She then describes her efforts to find those responsible for the refugees: “Having seen the situation, we tried to find out who was responsible for the affairs of the refugees and returnees and spending the money that is given by foreign countries to Afghanistan for the refugees.

“We first went to the Swedish Committee. That Committee directed us to C.D.M., which is a Swedish centre responsible for support and aid for Afghanistan. They said Sweden’s aid was given to the United Nations and they themselves were not involved directly.

“Eventually, we found out that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Ministry of Returnees and Repatriation were responsible for the returnees. We contacted them and asked them about the residents at the camp.

They said the returnees were receiving enough aid, which is not the case and the residents at the camp are in a terrible state. [The residents] said they had received aid only twice this year, the last aid being a sack of coal, a few metres of plastic sheeting and some soap.

“I was surprised that with all the aid that Afghanistan is receiving, people, especially those returning to Kabul, should be living in such unfortunate conditions. We arranged to visit the place with officials from the UNHCR and the Ministry of Returnees and Repatriation to see the place together and talk about the situation in front of the residents of the camp.

“We also researched to find out if this case and similar ones had been covered by the press in Afghanistan. I read a report about the refugees carried by Kabul Weekly two months ago and asked for a reporter from the paper to be present during our meeting with the officials.“

Leila and Hanna came to the offices of Kabul Weekly and we arranged to go to the camp. We agreed to meet at the UNHCR office on Thursday last week. From there, we went to the camp, along with the UNHCR’s deputy press officer, Mr Mohammad-Qader Farhad, and the Ministry of Returnees and Repatriation’s advisor, Mr Habibollah Qaderi.

As soon as they saw us, the residents of the camp rushed towards the vehicles, thinking that a charity organisation had brought them some aid.

In the midst of their torn-out tents, and amongst poor and hungry people, we looked like strange creatures travelling on flying saucers, who had landed on the earth by mistake.

Hanna’s camera was running, recording Leila’s interview and the people’s conversation with the officials. The people angrily told the Ministry’s advisor that the Ministry’s representatives were stealing from them. For example, they said, a few nights previously when there had been a lot of rain, several officials from the Ministry of Returnees and Repatriation had come along and got people to put their finger-prints on sheets of aid paper, but had not given anything to most people.

The returnees shouted, saying their children were dying because of the severe cold and old people were being afflicted with pain in their joints, rheumatism and other illnesses. They had not been given any health care yet, and most people in the camp were suffering form malnutrition.

The UNHCR’s deputy press officer was trying to reduce the camp residents’ anger by telling them about the organisation’s long-term plans. Leila, however, kept asking: “But Mr Nader, what is to be done about this child who will spend the night on damp earth?”

The Ministry of Returnee’s advisor appeared very upset and was saying that the Ministry did not have enough funds to help the refugees. Speaking in front of the people, he said the conditions in which they lived were not fit for human beings.

While the residents of the camp are in need of urgent help to survive, Mr Qaderi said the residents’ main problem was lack of shelter. He spoke of land for building houses and criticised other institutions for not having made land available to the Ministry for distribution among the refugees. He said the Ministry of Urban Planning had to make the land allocated to the returnees available to the Ministry of Returnees and Repatriation as soon as possible.

This was the first time I was seeing officials from organisations working with returnees and refugees appear in a camp to answer to the people and to reporters and, with foreign reporters’ cameras running, hear the abuse being hurled at them by enraged people.

After about an hour of talking with people and interviewing them, the two officials left the camp in their expensive vehicles. If one can make a prediction and comment in a news report, one can write responsibly that no change is going to take place in the lives of the residents of that camp. Because in their luxurious and quiet offices, the officials will forget that at night, the people in that camp will be sleeping on damp earth, at temperatures below freezing point, and during the day they will gather around any vehicle with a foreign organisation’s logo that approaches the camp with the hope of receiving aid. And come nightfall again, they will once again sleep on empty stomachs, wearing their threadbare clothes.

Perhaps what is reported by those two foreign journalists and this writer will force the officials to drink an extra cup of coffee and make an extra phone call to another office to ask them when their strategic plans for refugees will be ready.

But Leila and Hanna did what they could personally. Leila said she and her friend Hanna decided not to eat outside their residence and gave $400 to the residents of the camp.

Leila and Hanna also made a film about the lives of child carpet-weavers. They said they had found the lives of the child carpet-weavers very painful.

Leila said all she could do would be to make documentaries about the lives of the returnees and the child carpet-weavers and show them in Sweden and other western countries to attract people’s attention and more aid to Afghanistan.

Leila criticised the western media, saying that at least over the past two years they had shown Afghanistan as very prosperous and free of pain and suffering, while this was not the case. She was shocked, she said, when she came to Kabul because she “could not believe that with all the money that had flown in and all the modern equipment that had come to Kabul and all the human resource that was available nothing had been done and Kabul did not even have electricity.”

Leila and Hanna returned to Sweden at the beginning of the week but said that as reporters, they would try to inform the western countries of the realities of Afghanistan and would try to collect more aid for the people, especially for children, women and those whom they had filmed and reported, and make the aid available to them directly. That’s because Leila believes more than one half of the aid that is collected in the name of Afghanistan is plundered before it gets here.