Afghanistan: Voiceless & Displaced

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From the Summer 2012 Games People Play issue

By Rebecca Stewart

KABUL—In the traditional pose of Afghan men, Abdul Zia sits quietly—squatting down on his haunches close to the ground. But something about Abdul Zia doesn’t look like the rest of the men crouched along the streets of this capital city. Over his Pashtu turban are khaki, military-issue ear warmers. The hood of his dirty, 1970s ski jacket, likely a western cast off, is riddled with holes. His beard is grubby and matted.

His posture carries none of the pride associated with most Afghan men, who hold themselves like warriors. His hands, when they emerge from beneath his thin and ripped shalwar kameez, are mottled and scarred. Between the black dirt lining his fingers, is dried and fresh blood from the wounds caused by the biting, relentless wind. He would wash, if all the water didn’t turn to ice. He is curling himself into the tiniest possible ball, trying desperately to keep warm. Abdul Zia is just one of almost 400,000 Afghans displaced from their homes by the fighting—now living in appalling conditions in camps in the capital city. Throughout the country, the official statistics are fast approaching 750,000, but the reality is much worse.

Overflowing with more than 20,000 residents with nowhere else to go, the Nasaji Bagrami internally displaced people’s camp in the center of Kabul must be as close to hell on earth as any place on the planet. Yet, these lost people displaced by an international conflict rarely capture the world’s or even their own nation’s attention. A sprawling mass of mud huts and UNHCR logo-ed tarpaulins, the camp is a freezing nightmare of poverty, misery, and death. Amongst the bitter and hungry, Taliban recruiters find easy pickings to join their radical insurgency.

The ground sparkles with ice particles, formed around the mud—a perilous quagmire where the incautious slip or sink. The ice goes down at least a yard, probably more. The Kabul River, normally a trail of brown sludge snaking through the city, is now frozen solid and piled high with at least three feet of snow—the same snow that falls on tarpaulins, precariously balanced above hastily built mud walls. Not strong enough to bear the weight, tarpaulins collapse regularly onto freezing families who must then spend the rest of the night digging themselves free.

“We huddled round her to try and keep her warm,” Abdul Zia says. “I sat here, and my wife sat there,” he adds as he motions to two people sitting opposite each other with crossed legs. Just four days ago, in that space between them, lay their two-month old daughter Shah Gul. In temperatures 4 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, with the worst snowfall the country has seen in decades, Shah Gul was freezing to death. She contracted neither pneumonia nor hypothermia. Her little body simply froze, and there was nothing her desperate parents could do to stop it. Just a week earlier, their two-year-old son, Akhtar, had succumbed to the same fate.


Abdul Zia and his wife are not alone. In the first week of February, as many as 40 children froze to death in the Nasaji Bagrami camp—one of at least 10 camps in Kabul and several hundred throughout this war-torn country. There’s no tally of how many other children like Shah Gul or elderly people succumbed that week. The same day Abdul Zia told his story, 16-year-old Fatima was desperately thin and struggling to breathe. Her frantic mother described how the effects of the cold had cost her daughter the use of her legs. Fatima died later that day. Abdul Zia and his family have been living here for six years. A sprawling maze of mud, open sewerage, and ripped tarpaulins, there is no infrastructure or logic to the “informal settlements” that so many people now call home. But it’s not really home—home is 400 miles away, on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the capital of war-ravaged Helmand province.

Helmand is a sprawling expanse of over 22,000 square miles. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was dubbed the “America of Afghanistan,” with a huge hydroelectric plant and dam designed for massive cotton production, which needs substantial water supplies. These ambitious plans sputtered along through the arrival of Russian troops and later the Taliban. For if it wasn’t cotton, other crops could use the vast irrigation promised by this massive investment in water resources. Indeed, with low production costs and easy export routes, the fertile soil of Helmand province provided the perfect growing conditions for poppy. Helmand became the epicenter of the Afghan heroin trade. Today, the province produces over half of the opium in the global drug trade.

Whatever the roots—rich poppy crop or tribal affiliations—Helmand is one of the most strongly held Taliban areas and has proved one of the biggest headaches for  American-led forces since the invasion in 2001. In fact, the majority of all combat and civilian casualties alike have been in this province. The total civilian casualties are impossible to quantify, but since 2007, nearly 25,000 have been recorded. Yet nearly six years since the start of the major western offensive known as Operation Mountain Thrust, the Taliban, rather than showing signs of retreat, are stronger than ever.

One of the principal justifications for the “Security Assistance” in Afghanistan is the protection of the civilian population from the worst Taliban excesses. Yet UN figures suggest that from 2001 to 2005, more civilians were killed by NATO forces than by insurgents. The Taliban aren’t the only ones from whom civilians, like Abdul Zia and his family, need protection. What’s striking is that, with NATO’s formal mechanism of compensation for civilian casualties, much less attention is being paid today to the hundreds of thousands who are neither killed nor injured, but internally displaced by the fighting.


Abdul Zia, like 90 percent of his fellow Helmandis, worked as a farmer. His wife was looking after their seven children in their modest but comfortable home when it was suddenly hit in an airstrike. Six of his children were killed instantly. His home lost, Abdul Zia fled to Kabul with his wife and only surviving child.

Few in Abdul Zia’s position have the courage or knowledge to confront those who killed their family members and ask for compensation. While NATO has rightly recognized the need to redress families for civilians deaths and that the pre-2006 levels of “collateral damage” were unacceptable, it is not enough. The internally displaced population of Afghanistan requires sustainable, practical solutions that enable them to go home or to re-establish themselves elsewhere.

For Abdul Zia and his family, it was a perilous journey by foot from the outskirts of Lashkar Gar to Kabul that he undertook because he thought his family might be safe there. In the capital, he found refuge in Nasaji Bagrami, where most of his neighbors are Helmandi. But rather than sanctuary, he found despair with his two youngest children, born in the camp, dying just the same. With the fighting still escalating in Helmand, they have no option to return home—stuck in a city that doesn’t want them.

Abdul Zia’s family are direct civilian casualties of the operations of international military forces in Afghanistan. For most here, it is irrelevant whether the culprits were the Taliban or the international military forces. In these camps and in the streets of the city, their only wish, after 30 years of war, is for the fighting to end, allowing them to go home. For many, the victor is besides the point with more and more seeing the return of the Taliban as the only option.

As long as the fighting continues, the numbers of those fleeing into the capital will rise. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center now estimates that at least 400 people, literally running for their lives, arrive in Kabul every day. While their displacement may have been caused by international forces, it would appear that they then slip through a series of loopholes. The official mandate of the UNHCR is the care of refugees, but to achieve the status of refugee, civilians need to flee one country and enter another. Internally displaced people are those who have been forced leave their homes but who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.

Even if the internally displaced flee for the same reasons as refugees, the fact that they have not crossed an international frontier denies them the protections afforded to those with official refugee status. While the UNHCR works tirelessly to re-integrate the internally displaced, it has already been overwhelmed by four million refugees who have returned to Afghanistan since 2001, consuming enormous resources to reintegrate, re-house, and support those who have grown up in camps in Pakistan or as exiles in Iran.

Because IDPs are not defined as refugees under international law, they remain the responsibility of their own government. But the cabinet of President Hamid Karzai seems generally unable or unwilling to assist them. UN agencies have been known to step in when the problem becomes a humanitarian crisis, like this winter, but in general IDPs remain ignored and abandoned.

The areas where they settle do not even receive the official title of “camps,” but rather “informal settlements,” and are thus not afforded the protection of aid agencies or international law that official refugees receive. As fighting has intensified with a surge in military operations against Taliban strongholds, 91,000 Afghans have fled their homes in the first half of 2011, up from 42,000 in the first half of 2010. “This is a largely hidden but horrific human rights crisis,” says Horia Mosadiq, an Amnesty International researcher in Kabul.

Furthermore, Western military forces, while taking positive steps to mitigate the level of civilian casualties, have no strategy for dealing with those who are not injured or killed during operations, but displaced. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, in a 2011 report, found that in the Afghan cables published by Wikileaks in 2010, the U.S. government did not make a single reference to any displacements.


The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement require governments to assist their internal refugees, but such demands are not legally binding. There are also no guidelines to identify these individuals in the first place. The right to housing is guaranteed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights—a treaty signed and ratified by Afghanistan. The ability to live somewhere with security, peace, and dignity is a fundamental human right recognized under this same pact, which also imposes obligations on signatory nations to provide access to health care, water, and sanitation. Yet, the country’s government officials actively prevent agencies from providing clean water and even basic latrines.

Afghan law forbids the intervention of UN agencies in what are referred to as the “Kabul Informal Settlements.” The government argues that rather than civilians fleeing fighting, these people are economic migrants. While it has a responsibility under international law to provide for internally displaced people, it does not have such an obligation to help people leaving the provinces to seek a better life in the bright lights of the capital. Indeed, international aid agencies are barred from giving any assistance that would contribute to the permanence of internal migrants’ settlements, including building latrines, creating schools, and providing health care systems. Who gets assistance from the small number of local Afghan aid groups and international aid groups is all too often a matter of luck.

The migratory pressures often go far beyond the simple and direct need for Afghans to remove themselves from military engagements and deadly force to safety. Increasing numbers are also being forced to move to survive economically. While the government brands these as individuals seeking a more prosperous life, more often the move is simply a case of needing to feed one’s self. At the root of this dilemma is a keen desire by the Afghan government and the international community to discourage pure economic migration to the nation’s capital, which is ill-prepared to absorb them. Already bursting at the seams, the population of Kabul has mushroomed from 800,000 in 2001 to over 3 million today.

A 2011 report by the Brookings-Bern Institute points out that internally displaced people usually leave their homes for the same reasons as economic migrants—improved security, some hope of integration into a stable social framework. For economic migrants, these factors influence where they go, not when. This is the crucial difference. Internally displaced people like Abdul Zia and his family had no choice but to leave their villages, fearing for their lives and their family’s safety. When they arrive, they are condemned, often for years, to cramped, squalid, desperate conditions in what are effectively refugee settlements with no access to water, education, or health care. For their children to attend school, they need national identity cards, which often get left behind or destroyed in a desperate scramble to flee an attack on their homes.

Peter Nicolaus, head of the UNHCR mission in Afghanistan, acknowledges the full extent of the crisis. “The problems in the KIS [Kabul Informal Settlements] cannot be overestimated,” he says. This winter, just 10 minutes from the presidential palace and several UN guesthouses, Abdul Zia’s children and at least 38 others were freezing to death. Once the humanitarian crisis kicked in, UNHCR, Save the Children, and other agencies rushed to provide emergency assistance—blankets, jerry cans, and tarpaulins—to protect the people from the relentless snow. “We have a humanitarian problem every winter,” Nicolaus continues, “but this year, it was particularly bad. We had agreed on a program with the other agencies. We would take responsibility for the IDPs in the rural areas and those in Kabul [would] come under the care of someone else. In this urban center, let’s say things didn’t quite go to plan, and we ended up having to step in here as well. We covered over 10,000 people, and for two weeks in February, we were distributing non-stop.”

Compounding the problem, in January, an American drone accidentally struck a military position in Pakistan, which promptly closed its border and barred all foreign goods from entering Afghanistan. So while UNHCR warehouses were running out of supplies, exhausting almost half a million blankets and other emergency aid, vital replenishments were stuck in containers in Karachi. In the coldest winter for 20 years, only half the required aid was actually available. “Our warehouses are nearly empty,” warns Nicolaus. “When the snow melts, there will be floods, there will be landslides. We will have to intervene, but the less I have, the less I can intervene.” Half a year later, the aid has still not arrived. And though the UNHCR did intervene under these extraordinary conditions, Nicolaus is quick to underline that the IDPs in the “informal settlements” are not the responsibility of the UN. While they look after the 5.7 million refugees returning from abroad, the domestic problem falls to the Afghan government.


While there is an Afghan Ministry for Refugees and Returnees, the focus tends to be on re-integration of returnees rather than on the needs of internally displaced individuals or families. Of course, many returnees, finding that their original homes have gone, become secondarily displaced and therefore become IDPs. The Afghan National Development Strategy does include some provisions for returning refugees and IDPs. But again, its priority is returning them to their place of origin, ignoring both longer term solutions and immediate humanitarian care. Since most of those returning can’t go home at all, this strategy is a waste of time and resources. According to a February report by Amnesty International, the Afghan government’s de facto “response to internal displacement is to pretend that it doesn’t exist,” while “official hostility towards displaced persons also partially explains restrictions on aid delivery.”

The Amnesty report quotes one foreign aid worker as saying “we are not allowed to even call them IDPs—we are told they are ordinary citizens” and an Afghan official saying “they should work [and live] like ordinary citizens, not stay in those mass areas where suicide bombers hide themselves.”

But these are not “ordinary citizens.” In order to participate in society as an ordinary citizen, an Afghan needs proof of nationality and identity documents. Neither is available to people like Abdul Zia who fled his home in the wake of an attack.

The Afghan government actively refuses even to acknowledge the status of IDPs, arguing that they give themselves this title to get help. Indeed, the government says once they have been in the camps for more than two years, they are settled and therefore would lose any IDP status anyway. “Settled” feels like a strange word to describe life in these places. Although most economic migrants are individual men, IDPs tend to consist of families, and most of the residents of Nasaji Bagrami are families.

Afghan government officials argue that families are drawn to cities by the promise of aid distribution as well as subsidies and services rather than genuinely fleeing fighting. Given his circumstances and the recent loss of his children, Abdul Zia bitterly says that he has hardly been drawn to Nasaji Bagrami by aid distribution and promises of a free lunch. “I want to go  home,” he snaps angrily. “Do you think we want to live like dogs in this camp?”

There is, of course, a substantial financial incentive for the Afghan government to refuse IDPs their status. If they refuse to recognize them as victims of conflict and instead label them as economic migrants, they have no responsibility to provide them with water, sanitation, health care, or education.

Still, Afghan officials insist that they can help their own citizens, but that they must, in emergencies, be able to fall back on international aid that may be available. But because of existing statutes, the government has effectively barred itself from legally accessing such aid to relieve even the most pressing needs. The result of these regulations is to turn an economic or developmental dilemma into a desperate humanitarian crisis whenever cold, drought, or other natural calamity strikes. Islamuddin Jurat, a spokesman for the Ministry for Refugees and Returnees says, “If we build permanent infrastructure for them, they will stay forever. But they can’t, as every plot of land they have settled on belongs to a government official or individual.”  He pauses, then concludes, “The whole country can’t live in Kabul.”


The question of where these people can go becomes further complicated by the complex issues of land ownership in Afghanistan. For over 30 years of conflict, a host of competing warlords and governing factions have led to a history of land grabs, requisitioning, and illegal sales of property across the nation. Coupled with the pervasive lack of documentation, proof of land ownership is a massively complicating factor to the efforts of returning the internally displaced to their homes—often seized immediately following their departure—or finding them new quarters in safer territory, especially in and around Kabul where land values have skyrocketed.

Nevertheless, it is the Americans on whom blame usually falls. “I do blame the Americans,” says Abdul Zia. He, as most Afghans, uses “Americans” generically to refer to all allied military forces with white skins and western accents. “Americans are responsible for our lives, because they were doing their bombardments, and they killed our children.”

Nicolaus, however, has another answer as to what’s responsible. “Who is to blame?” he asks. “The urbanization process. There is no country in the world that could cope with this [pace of migration into urban areas].” Indeed, Aidan O’Leary, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan points out, “It’s very important to remember this isn’t just something that resonates in the capital. It’s happening right across Afghanistan. So in every major urban center you have these settlements, you have these conditions, and because of a combination of lack of access to livelihoods, shelter, water, or health care, it simply exacerbates the conditions for the most vulnerable.”

As we sit huddled in the one room hut that provides shelter to Abdul Zia and six other families, a crowd has gathered. Word has spread that there are hariji (foreigners) in the camp, and after other foreigners made these people homeless, destitute, and bereaved, the group greets us with a mixture of fear, intrigue, and hostility. One of those who has joined the crowd is Mullah Ibrahim. He stands out from the others, perhaps because of the reverence his position demands or perhaps because he has helped and protected so many of the residents here. He does not have the exhausted look of Abdul Zia and his family. His eyes do not seem frozen by losses too extreme for any one human to bear. He is the camp elder and is not huddled into a ball on the ground. He stands proud, tall, and defiant.

“I blame Karzai,” says Mullah Ibrahim. “I blame him for all these miseries.
Our leaders are corrupt and selfish. I want to take them all by the throat. Billions of dollars have come into here. Billions. Where have they gone?” Despite the money being spent by the United States and others to rebuild Afghanistan, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation’s budget for the fiscal year 2011-2012 is only $6 million.

Beyond the lack of short-term funding for immediate relief, there is the longer-term issue of where to put these families who have lost everything. In 2005, Presidential Decree 104 proclaimed a land re-allocation program with the goal of providing vulnerable landless returnees and IDPs with plots of land. But to qualify, they needed their personal documentation. It is a bitter and apparently insoluble problem, since to solve it would immediately require vast tracts of land that are already spoken for by interests far more powerful and vocal than the voiceless refugees themselves.

One tiny site created under this decree is Saripol on the outskirts of Kabul.  One foreign aid worker quoted in the Amnesty report says, “there are 1,100 houses, and it’s deserted. There is no permanent water source. Yet, the communities need water. Why is the government designating areas in places where there is no water? It’s a complete disaster.”

 The UN’s O’Leary adds, “We have to be very realistic about the scale of the challenge we actually face. We’ve issued clothes, firewood, foodstuffs, blankets, we’ve issued a whole range of support. But if you’re living in a plastic tent or shelter in the heart of a city center in temperatures of 20 below zero, we can mitigate, but we can’t prevent what’s happening. And it’s truly awful what’s happening.” He adds that many of these families have been living in Kabul for 10 years, with no prospect of any change in their circumstances. “We need to prevent this moving forward,” he continues. What we have to explore is how to cope with the underlying causes of these conditions rather than dealing with the symptoms when they actually occur.”

A first step, says Nicolaus of UNHCR, is to begin a concrete and sustainable resettlement of even a small part of the population. “We are resettling 150 families out of the KIS [camp] and into sites just outside Kabul. That’s about 1,000 people,” and outside the UN’s official mandate, he points out. “But a quarter of the population of Afghanistan are IDPs or returning refugees—some 5.7 million people.”

The broad consensus among international aid officials is that the Afghan government must repeal the legislation that ties their hands, allowing them to  provide basic services and stop more civilians from dying—far more than any who have succumbed to the violence of the war.

While enormous efforts have been made by western military forces to reduce civilian casualties, it is imperative that the term “collateral damage” includes those who have been displaced and will die from neglect or the harsh natural elements of Afghanistan. The children freezing to death in the camp are just as much civilian casualties as those hit directly by airstrikes.

At the same time, funding must be increased to UNHCR to make sure they can cover the vast number of IDPs who they now ignore. In protracted conflict situations like Afghanistan, it is unreasonable and inhumane for the UNHCR mandate to continue to recognize only refugees who have crossed borders. Surely, the UN mandate should be extended in conflict situations to include IDPs before a humanitarian crisis like this develops. Any displacement is conflict-induced. Economic migration can only truly begin once peace has been established.

But there is the final reality that military officials need to recognize as well. Not only do the IDPs represent a true humanitarian crisis, but a political and security crisis as well. These makeshift camps, housing these increasingly bitter people and their families, are fertile grounds for Taliban recruitment.

It’s happened before. It is widely accepted that the Taliban, originally simply a small group of religious extremists, gained extraordinary strength through recruitment of orphaned refugees in the camps of Pakistan while their native Afghanistan was being decimated by various factions of the mujahadeen.

The same pattern is emerging again. UN research has found that children as young as 12 are being recruited by the Taliban for such work as digging holes where improvised explosive devices are then planted. Some of these children are being used, often without their knowledge, as suicide bombers, with the device being detonated by someone far away.

With growing hatred toward the West and what are now seen as “occupying forces,” a whole army of hungry, desperate, and angry people is waiting in the wings—shivering targets for the Taliban to radicalize.



Rebecca Stewart is a producer, director, and writer specializing in the Middle East and Africa. She recently returned from a year in Afghanistan.

[Photo: United Nations]

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