[Hpn] Afghan Children Homeless And Afraid (fwd)

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Sun, 21 Oct 2001 00:27:48 -0700 (PDT)

"I don't want a bomb to fall on my house, on my head." -- Nasim, age 10

FWD  Associated Press - October 16, 2001, 2:28 AM EDT


AP Special Correspondent

	PESHAWAR, Pakistan --

Seven-year-old Ursal wakes up at night, crying. Her 6-year-old sister
Nazeen jumps when she hears any loud noise. Their 10-year-old cousin Nasim
is nervous when he is indoors, afraid the house will collapse around him.

These refugee children, whose family fled the Afghan capital of Kabul five
days ago, were already ragged, ill and malnourished before the U.S.-led
bombing campaign began. Now they have added fear and displacement to the
long list of hardships already besetting them.

The extended Gul family -- four women and 17 children -- slipped out of
Kabul before dawn last Thursday, terrified after four nights of thunderous
bombardment that shook the poor neighborhood where they lived. Sometimes
the warplanes came back by day as well.

The family managed to arrange truck transport to a point near the border,
which is closed by refugees. They crossed the frontier in the dark on a
steep, rocky mule track, with guides who charged what was for them the
astronomical sum of $8 per adult.

Exhausted and nearly penniless, they finally arrived in the frontier city
of Peshawar over the weekend. Two of the women left behind husbands who
will try to follow later; two had already been widowed by earlier fighting
in Afghanistan.

They were able to carry almost nothing with them. On their cross-border
journey, each adult was clutching at least one small child, and the older
children were responsible for shepherding along their younger brothers and

"We have what we are wearing -- that is all," said Qandi Gul, 40, the
mother of six girls and a boy, covered from head to toe in an
all-enveloping veil, or burqa. Only her chapped, callused hands showed,
palms turned up in a gesture of helplessness.

The group has moved in with a relative from their ethnic Pashtun clan
living in an Afghan shantytown on the outskirts of Peshawar. He took them
in without hesitation, although his tiny home is now overflowing and he has
no idea how he will feed all these new mouths.

On Monday, the mothers and 11 of the children made their way to an Afghan
aid group, the Welfare and Development Organization. By word of mouth in
the refugee camps, it has become a crucial way station for new arrivals
like these. Because they are here illegally and fear being picked up and
sent home, they are afraid to seek help anywhere else.

Almost all the children were ill with diarrhea or respiratory ailments,
said Al-Umera, a 28-year-old doctor treating them. As the family waited in
an anteroom at the aid group's offices, a chorus of racking coughs arose.

There are limits to what she will be able to do for them, said the doctor,
whose own family fled Afghanistan when she was 5. None of the children has
gotten enough to eat in a long time, she says, and malnourishment will
leave them susceptible to more illness, especially in the cramped, squalid
conditions in which they will be living.

With the frontier closed to refugees, a full-scale exodus has yet to occur.
But refugees are already arriving in numbers large enough to alarm the
Pakistani government. Pakistan, already home to more than 2 million Afghan
refugees, insists it cannot afford to take in more without a massive
infusion of international aid.

The Welfare and Development Organization estimates that about 250 families
have arrived in Peshawar since the bombardment began eight days ago, but an
accurate count is impossible because most are in hiding. Many more are
thought to be sheltering with relatives in the tribal belt along the
province's rugged border with Pakistan.

Al-Umera, who like many Afghans uses only one name, questioned the children
gently about the bombardment and the family's flight. Most are sleeping
badly, their mothers told her.

"This one has bad dreams -- she cries out at night," said Qandi Gul, mother
of Ursal, a luminous-eyed 7-year-old who carried her 18-month-old brother
Lamzai on her skinny hip.

Their cousin Nasim, 10 and very small for his age, talked in a whisper
about the noise the bombardment made, and how dust and powder would fall
down from the ceiling as the house shook. Now he hates being indoors.

"I don't want a bomb to fall on my house, on my head," he said haltingly.

They talked, too, about the tense trip across the border, climbing
hillsides slippery with gravel. "It was dark, dark, and I was very afraid,"
said 6-year-old Nazeen.

Al-Umera has heard many such stories in the past few days. "I worry for
their mental state," she said. "You can see that all of this will stay with
them for a long time."

Sometimes she consoles children by telling them that she understands. She
vividly remembers her own family's flight across the mountains, how her
gentle mother slapped her hard when she began to whimper, afraid that the
sound of her crying would give them away.

The women of the Gul family said they hoped for an end to the fighting so
they can return home. They ask a visitor when that might be.

"We don't understand what has happened to us," said Qandi Gul. "We just
want to be safe somewhere."

Associated Press


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