Afghan refugees forced to start over after floods

September 2, 2010

AZAKHEL, Pakistan — After fleeing the Soviet invasion of his country with nothing, Afghan refugee Ziarat Gul spent three decades building a new life in neighboring Pakistan.

After the devastating floods that rolled across Pakistan last month, he is back to nothing.

Gul and tens of thousands of other Afghan refugees here are struggling to recover from a double tragedy, seeing their homes across the border engulfed by war and then their refugee camps here demolished by floods.

“Again, I am left with only the clothes I am wearing,” the 60-year-old said.

The floods, which swamped wide swathes of the country and left 8 million people in need of aid, will hammer Pakistan’s economy and lead to “massive” job losses, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Wednesday, predicting a grim couple of years for the already fragile country.
One-fifth of the country’s irrigation infrastructure, livestock and crops were destroyed, and the reduction in agriculture will snowball into other parts of the economy, he told his Cabinet. Economic growth would drop to 2.5 percent in 2011 down from a predicted 4.5 percent this year, and inflation predicted to hit 9.5 percent next year would likely be in the range of 15 percent to 20 percent instead, he said.
The situation is particularly grim for Gul and the 23,000 other residents of the Azakhel refugee camp, 95 miles (150 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad.

All of their homes, made of mud and loose brick, are gone. Unable to open bank accounts because of their refugee status, they kept their cash savings in their houses. Much of that disappeared as well, with the refugees accusing neighboring villagers of looting it.
Gul, who lived with his extended family of 22 people, kept 200,000 rupees ($2,300) as well as jewelry in a wooden box in a cupboard. Now, he can’t even find the cupboard. “Everything vanished,” he said.

Gul originally came here 33 years ago, walking for 24 hours over the mountains with 10,000 others to flee the Soviets who invaded his village in Logar province. He worked as a scrap dealer until he was forced to retire six years ago after a car accident. Now, his life savings is the 200 rupees he was given by a local charity. A tarp stretched between trees is his home.

Nearly 70,000 Afghan refugees in 13 camps were affected by the floods, said Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency. Many refugees complain that they have not yet received any aid; Rummery said the agency has sent tents, tarps and mosquito nets to the refugees, but has yet to reach everyone.

The scene in Azakhel, the largest of the destroyed camps, is a testament to the ferocity of the floodwaters that overflowed the rivers rushing down from the mountainous northwest last month.

A brick frame and its wooden door stand alone as the only remnant of one house. A man points underfoot to where a mud and straw roof has melted into the earth. Mounds of crushed bricks and twisted steel are strewn everywhere, along with bundles of matted hay that had been intended to feed the refugees’ now dead livestock. The thick smell of rot, mold and sewage sticks in the hot, humid air.
Only the mosques, made of concrete, stand undamaged. The refugee agency is looking to move the residents to other camps while they rebuild the homes, roads, drainage systems, schools and health centers, Rummery said. “It needs to be rehabilitated and we’ve had our engineers there looking at what needs to be done,” she said.

In the meantime, the residents have found refuge in nearby schools, been taken in by local Pakistanis or are living out in the open. The few who have managed to scrape together some money, like Umer Khan, 45, are able to rent rooms.

Khan, who fled Afghanistan as a child, managed to turn a job selling fruit off a cart into a thriving grocery store. “We were a well-to-do family here,” he said. The flood destroyed 300,000 rupees worth of mangoes, rice and flour from his shop, one of the few structures left standing amid the rubble and craters of what was once the village bazaar. He lost another 400,000 rupees in jewelry and cash from his home, he said.

“My 32 years of hard work vanished in two hours,” he said. He has managed to recover some money by selling three freezers and a refrigerator destroyed in the flood for scrap. Other residents gather here everyday to sift through the remnants of their lives for rusted metal to sell to scrap dealers, who have hung scales from trees outside the camp.

“Now, we are back where we were when we left Afghanistan,” said Lal Marjan, a 44-year-old brick kiln worker. “We don’t have any home, we don’t have any jobs, we don’t have any money. I don’t have any resources to rebuild a home. It’s all up to the government.”
Amid the flood devastation, more than 200 families from the camp have returned to Afghanistan, Rummery said.

Marjan said he had no choice but to stay.
“What can I do there? I don’t have money to buy land in my country. Whatever we had there was gone,” he said.

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