Margaret Larson reports from Pakistan refugee camp

Afghanistan, December 11, 2001

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    Marageret Larson recently assisted Mercy Corps' relief efforts at the Chaman regugee camp along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. Photo: Scott Heidler Photo:

CHAMAN, PAKISTAN, Dec. 10 - I've been working directly at the border, near Chaman, Pakistan and it has been amazing.

I can't help but continually marvel at the toughness, the absolute grit of the afghan refugees coming across the border. After what they've experienced and seen at home, after exhausting and probably harrowing travels, they're left to bribe their way across the border or pelt the Pakistani soldiers with stones until they can squeeze through.

What's waiting for them is a dusty, barren, forbidding stretch of land and thousands of other people in the same predicament. Both the men and women are prematurely aged, and it's extreme. A 40-year old looks 60. A father appears to be a grandfather. Even the children have the hands of the elderly, weathered and worn. The swirling sandstorms are so frequent, the kids are caked with dirt. They look like they've been rolled in ashes.

There are some frayed nerves today. Some people, probably local citizens doing a good deed during the holy month of Ramadan, have driven a truck to the camp to distribute a small number of clothing articles. Their good intentions go predictably awry; there are not nearly enough parcels of clothing to go around. The handouts cause a near-riot of desperate people, who are quickly left in a cloud of dust and disappointment.

"Some of the children look blank and sit quietly in the dust. Others still have a sparkle in their eyes; you can see the potential for hope." (Photo: Scott Heidler/Mercy Corps)

Mercy Corps is working hard, seven days a week to help. I am so impressed with Rod Volway, Mercy Corps' lead person in the distribution of food and household items to refugees in the only two new camps to open since the bombing campaign started. He is in constant motion, thinking ahead, checking on the warehouse, thinking some more, doubling back to make sure things are on schedule. Refugees come first to Killi Faizo, a transit camp, where they register and get basic goods. They are transported to Roghani, a camp for 15,000 refugees offering supplies, shelter and medical care.

Mercy Corps distributes monthly supplies of wheat flour, cooking oil, lentils and soap. Refugee families also receive blankets, pads, buckets and hygiene materials, lanterns and fuel. Help has to start somewhere. For thousands, it starts here.

These are tense days. U.S. military aircraft are flying overhead. Taliban fighters, fleeing Afghanistan, now roam this border area. Some reports claim Mullah Omar is here in Chaman. Some say he's wounded. No one knows. The bombing has caused anger. A journalist was beaten on the road here. But the refugees seem not to look much farther than tonight; they want peace and a chance maybe to go home. Two children died here yesterday. One was two, the other 10 days old. It seems hard to believe that in the 21st century, we human beings can't do better than this.

I play with some kids, show them my video camera. They laugh and take turns over and over until we've amassed quite a crowd. The children eventually break away in groups. There's nothing really to play with...a spare wheelbarrow, an empty sack. A vendor has set up a cart just outside the gate. Some refugees have enough money to buy a small plastic truck for their kids, or some extra crackers. A man passes by with a child on his shoulders, and his mother rides in the wheelbarrow he's pushing. On ahead, a 4-year old struggles to pick up a can of cooking oil and then follows his father back into the seemingly endless row of tents. It's a world so far from mine. I don't think I can adequately describe it.

Some of the children look blank and sit quietly in the dust. Others still have a sparkle in their eyes; you can see the potential for hope. I can't see the women. Many still wear the burqa. Those who don't have only their eyes exposed, which they frequently obscure with a hand. They scurry away from the camera. At home, they've been forbidden to be seen or photographed but then, in the line to pick up flour, a woman makes eye contact. She has a child with her, and she's the only woman among the dozens of men in line (traditionally, Afghan men do the food shopping, women do the household shopping). I point to the camera; she doesn't look away. I pick up the camera, and kneel down next to her, so that I can see her and photograph her at eye level. She maintains the gaze. I put the camera down. She never stops looking at me. Her eyes crinkle just a little bit. I think she's smiling and all I can think is, I hope we can help these people.