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Inside Afghanistan’s Appalling Refugee Camps
By Alex Thomson
It has come to this. A woman sits in the mud and puddles. The snow falls relentlessly. It is minus 6 degrees, even at 11 in the morning. But sit here she must.
If she moves suddenly, she will be hit, for she sits in the middle of the road and covered head to foot in the blue burkha. Her vision is restricted ahead and her peripheral vision is non-existent. And she’s in the middle of one of the busiest streets in probably the most traffic-choked capital on earth.
This is Kabul’s not-so-secret shame – women forced to do this in the hope that a hand might come from the window of one of the city’s legion of 4x4s and bestow a few precious Afghanis to keep her and her children alive for another day.
That is, if you can call this life, or living.
After all the billions poured into the country in foreign aid during the west’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, even in the capital the conditions in the fifty or more mostly illegal refugee camps have to be seen to be believed.
One of those begging women, Sakineh, agrees to take our cameraman Mehran Bozorgnia back to the Nasajiu refugee camp to show how things are for the poorest of the city’s poor.
There are scores of camps like these. At least 50,000 refugees across Kabul. Some have come back from the 2.6 million Afghans who fled the Taliban to the vast camps of Pakistan and Iran, many others have been displaced by the fighting which has continued ever since the west ousted those same Taliban fighters.
And they are desperate places at this time of year – or any other. Running water or sewerage would be a dream here. The stench of human waste mixes with the toxic fumes of plastic being burned – though aid organisations deliver some firewood, it is pitiful and nowhere near what is needed for people here.
A man shows Channel 4 News terrible scars on his back. He thought if he sold a kidney he would get enough money to escape here and never have to come back. That was several years ago now and he stands angry and despairing in the freezing muddy slime of this place.
Next door, a girl of perhaps 10 or 11 years old slowly peels back the dressing to reveal her entire hand burned by an accident with one of the open fires burning all over this place to try and keep people alive.
Agha Mohammad is livid.
“Come,” he says, beckoning.
“Look at this – human beings have to live here. Look at it. You can make your own judgement. You don’t need any words from me.”
The floor is awash with the slime of liquidising mud in the freezing cold. During the night the weight of snow collapsed the flimsy tarpaulin roof over this place. The children are ill with the toxic plastic fumes everywhere here and like everyone else, any fees for private medical treatment or even medicine itself – are way out of reach.
“See my leg – it was hit by a bullet,” adds Agha.
“My hand was hit by shrapnel. I’ve served this country for thirty years!”
He’s near to tears.
The UNHCR supplies the basics of shelter, some firewood and clothing for the children. But it cannot supply what’s needed – an economy, a functioning state and above all, jobs. Hanging over all of this the great spoken and unspoken question on everyone’s mind in this country. As the west retreats from its long-lost war here, just what happens to the have-nots who need the most help?
Once Nato has gone will the fear of intensified civil war become reality? And if it does, the western charities and the United Nations will not be here as they are now – and even now the UN sums up conditions in the camps in one word: “Appalling.”
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