Afghan refugees homeless again in Pakistan floods

August 25, 2010

Source: Agence France-Presse (AFP), Date: 20 Aug 2010

By Sajjad Tarakzai (AFP)

AZAKHEL PAYAN, Pakistan — Afghan refugees who fled their homeland when Soviet troops invaded 30 years ago are now homeless once again — this time due to the floods that have devastated Pakistan.

“Nothing is left. Everything is destroyed,” Muhib Ullah, 40, told AFP, sitting on the debris of his home at Azakhel refugee camp.

Originally a giant tent city for Afghan refugees, the camp morphed into a permanent village. Today the settlement lies in ruins close to the Grand Trunk road heading to the northwestern city of Peshawar.

The smashed remains of what were once brick and mud homes lie scattered across the muddy ground for several kilometres, as if the area had been carpet-bombed.

Ullah, a teacher in a madrassa, who migrated from Afghanistan at the time of the Soviet occupation, has moved his five boys and five girls into a nearby tent.

Wearing wet clothes and a traditional white Muslim cap, he bundled bedsheets, cushions, quilts and pillows to one side and tried to dry them out.

Broken beds, stools and other furniture were visible under the debris of Ullah’s house while a ceiling fan full of mud and dirt lay on one side.

Millions of Afghan refugees fled three decades of civil war and turmoil, crowding into camps in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.

The Pakistani government says 20 million people have been affected by the country’s worst flooding in 80 years, which has struck an area the size of England, ravaging villages, farmland, infrastructure and businesses.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said Azakhel accommodated around 6,000 Afghan families but the villagers who lost everything said the number was closer to 11,000.

“Ninety-nine percent of the camp has been completely destroyed by the floods. Clearing the rubble will take at least two months,” said UNHCR shelter coordinator Werner Schellenberg.

“I saw a handful of people trying to rescue their belongings but most of the Afghans have left to live with relatives or camp along the roadside, where a makeshift site has sprung up,” he said.

For Islam Gul, 30, who lost his medical store and his home, the future in Pakistan is so bleak that he’s contemplating a return to Afghanistan, convinced that his native city Jalalabad in the east can now afford more comfort.

“All the medicines are buried. I have nothing to feed my family with,” he told AFP outside the wreckage of his shop.

Children paddled barefoot in filthy water. An awful stench stung the back of the throat and made breathing difficult.

“It’s because of dead cattle. Hundreds have died here,” Gul said.

All around, parents and children were busy rescuing their belongings from the filthy water.

An eight-year-old boy clutched a toy in his left hand, having walked through muddy, contaminated water to retrieve it.

“Everybody is facing skin problems and allergies. We’re also facing gastro discomfort and other stomach problems,” said Gul.

The lack of electricity and miserable conditions in the nearby displacement camp means Gul is now considering taking his parents, five brothers, their wives and children, as well as his own offspring, back home.

“I’m living on that roof over there but plan to go to Jalalabad along with my family. There are so many mosquitoes here,” he said.

Exhausted and weighed down with bags on their shoulders and in their arms, schoolteacher Mohammad Ali, 45, and his 12-year-old daughter Salma walked out of the camp with bundles of household goods and a bag of clothes.

They were going back to their family, now relocated to the nearby small town of Akora Khattak, famous in Pakistan as the location of a pro-Taliban madrassa.

Ali’s house and the school where he taught were destroyed.

“For me the real problem is the destruction of the school. I’m worried about the future, both the future of our children and my own,” he said.

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