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Refugees flee from U.S. bombs
Making of a catastrophe

November 2, 2001 | Page 5

ELIZABETH LALASZ and NICOLE COLSON report on the refugee crisis caused by Washington's war.

"AFGHANISTAN IS slowly falling apart." That's what Abdul Wali, an Afghan from the southern city of Kandahar, told a reporter last week.

Abdul was returning to keep watch over his house after bringing his wife and children to the Pakistani border. The mainstream media regularly claim that the "expected" flood of refugees fleeing U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan hasn't taken place. But Afghans like Abdul say that those who can leave are leaving.

According to BBC News, 80 percent of the residents of Kandahar--a city of 400,000 that is considered a Taliban stronghold--have fled. The story is the same in other cities.

"We decided to flee Kabul when our neighbors were killed," one woman told the BBC. "We heard the explosion in the night but were too frightened to go outside. Some of the fragments flew into our house, too. When we went out at daybreak, women were screaming and tearing at their clothes. My neighbor's home was in ruins, and she was there, weeping--her husband and two children had been killed."

Refugees began streaming across the border into Pakistan even before U.S. air strikes began. That is, when the borders were open--Pakistan's military regime has kept crossings closed for long periods during the last month. As a result, tens of thousands of Afghans have been caught in a "no-man's land" along the border, waiting to cross.

"Over there, it's horrible," a border post commander told a reporter as he pointed at the crowd of Afghans waiting in 97-degree heat beyond a barbed-wire fence. "There are sick people, injured people, patients. They have brought just one loaf of bread, two loaves of bread in a sack, which they will eat for a week. The men are sick, the women are pregnant, the children are dying. The conditions are pathetic…Some of them bring bodies from that side over here to bury."

When the border is closed, the only Afghans who can cross are those who require medical treatment. "There's a constant stream of injured people--eyes, legs and arms wrapped in bloody bandages--trickling out of Afghanistan," one guard near Quetta told MSNBC. Once treated, the injured and sick are sent back.

The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is 1,400 miles long, and there are many ways to cross it. Thousands of people are paying traffickers to smuggle them over--with all their possessions loaded on donkeys or on their backs.

Yet even if refugees make it, they face horrific conditions. Pakistan has only allowed camps to be set up just inside the border--in remote and inhospitable areas that lack basic infrastructure and are difficult to supply with essentials such as water.

Even before the U.S. war started, Afghanistan had one of the world's largest refugee populations. After more than two decades of continuous warfare, nearly 5 million Afghans--almost one-fifth of the population--are displaced, living mainly in Pakistan or Iran.

The group Doctors Without Borders says that health problems, from dehydration to tuberculosis, are rampant in the refugee camps. Now Bush's "war against terrorism" is turning the crisis in Afghanistan into a catastrophe.

"You're punishing a whole country because of one man," one refugee told CNN. "It's not the Taliban who are dying…It's the widows and orphans, the elderly and the poor. We've been at war for the last 23 years--what was left for America to come back and attack?"

U.S. won't welcome refugees

THE U.S. government and its Western allies have plenty of sympathy for Afghan refugees--victims of the brutal Taliban regime, we're told. Just as long as they don't want to live here.

As many as 20,000 refugees who had been cleared to come to the U.S. to escape persecution in their home countries have had their arrival indefinitely delayed since September 11.

Among those barred are women fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraqis trying to escape repression at the hands of Saddam Hussein's government.

So don't buy the crocodile tears of Western leaders. When it comes to refugees, there's no welcome mat in Washington.

U.S. puts bombs before food aid

GEORGE W. BUSH claims that "humanitarian relief" is one of the chief goals of the U.S. air operation. But the numbers don't add up.

As of the end of October, U.S. planes had dropped about 850,000 food packages on Afghanistan--each containing enough food for one person for one day. Each package costs $3.95--so the U.S. has spent about $3.3 million on food relief.

Compare that to the amount the U.S. has spent on bombs. Since the war began, the Pentagon has dropped at least 70 Tomahawk cruise missiles--each with a price tag of more than $1 million. And that's just one type of bomb that the Pentagon is using.

Seventy million dollars for cruise missiles versus $3.5 million for food….very humanitarian.

Then there's the "fuzzy math" to do with the food packages themselves. Relief agencies say that some 1.5 million Afghans face malnutrition now. Even assuming that every single one of the rations made it into the hands of a hungry Afghan, the U.S. only got one day's worth of food to about two-thirds of the people who need it in the period of a month.

Maybe it's a question of priorities.

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