Afghan families flee to tent city

Published Oct. 26, 2001|Updated Sept. 10, 2005

Balancing a pile of scarlet quilts atop her head, Mariam, who looks barely 10, stumbled across a rock-strewn plain. Just ahead was her destination: a sprawling tent village that has sprung up since the start of U.S. airstrikes on Afghanistan.

Hundreds of families who have fled nightly bombing raids now live in this camp about 10 miles east of Jalalabad, capital of eastern Nangarhar province. Slapdash tents open to the elements are crafted from tattered clothing or sewn-together bedding slung over wooden poles.

People express puzzlement. "We always thought America was our friend," Zabi Ullah, one resident, told a reporter escorted through the camp by representatives of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.

They didn't want the reporter to interview Mariam. She turned away, smiling shyly, her feet bare and callused. It looked painful stepping over stones and brambles to reach her tent, yet she didn't flinch. She laughed with other children, who pushed and shoved to glimpse foreign strangers.

Nearby, a boy of about 8 lugged two pails of water hanging from a wooden pole stretched over his shoulders. Almost doubled over, he moved slowly toward the tents.

"I don't know what these people will do for food or water. There is nothing here," said Sufi Jan, a Taliban security official assigned to escort the reporter and a photographer to the eastern city of Jalalabad. Another Taliban escort took over from Jalalabad to the Afghan capital, Kabul, 75 miles away.

The Pakistani border, some 35 miles away, has been sealed _ as have all of Afghanistan's borders with other nations. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees calls Afghans a trapped people.

Pakistan, which is already giving refuge to 2.1-million Afghans, says it can't afford more. Still, the UNHCR estimates at least 60,000 Afghans have managed to reach Pakistan since the U.S.-led air campaign began on Oct. 7.

"Our life is one war after another," said Ullah, a Kabul businessman. "Before, it was Russia. Then it was the mujahedeen, and now it is America. Everyone drops bombs on our heads."

The Taliban have accused the U.S.-led coalition of targeting civilians. Military targets, though, are clearly being hit.

Outside Jalalabad, across the clear-blue Kabul River, a huge crater sits where a bomb destroyed the Taliban's No. 9 division. Six soldiers were injured there, said Shahzada, the Taliban escort between Jalalabad and Kabul.

All that remains is a boxy cement building. It doesn't look like a major installation, but it was in the area called Darunta, where U.S. intelligence believes bin Laden maintains camps.

At military intelligence headquarters in Jalalabad, the Taliban are defiant. Sitting on red velvet cushions, sipping sweet green tea and chewing tobacco, they discuss a possible American ground assault.

"Afghans are always quick to fight with each other. But now we are united against the enemy," said Qarin Naseer Mohammed, a commander. "If the American soldiers come, we will proudly fight together."