Thursday, October 2, 2008

'All tell of civilians killed by air strikes'

Jason Burke of the Guardian has a heart-wrenching report on refugees from the south whom he talked to in Kabul.

Destitute and confused: bleak future for refugees caught in the crossfire
Residents of grim camp tell of clashes between coalition forces and the Taliban

Jason Burke
The Guardian

KABUL, Oct 3 - [The 3,500 refugees in this camp] are a long way from their homes in the badlands of the south where the British are fighting. Most of the refugees are from districts such as Sangin, Nawazad, Kajaki or Gereshk in the southern province of Helmand, sites of fierce battles between British troops and the Taliban.

Their stories reveal a different side of the conflict. Few understand who is fighting, even fewer distinguish between British troops and those of other nationalities, all tell stories of civilians killed by coalition air strikes. There is little sign of progress in the campaign to win hearts and minds.

[Rozi Khan, a day labourer from Kajaki:] "They say they have come to help us but they have come for fighting," Khan, 25, said. "But instead of killing one person who has attacked them they kill 50 people in the village. Is this a help?"

Bismatullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said "the Americans" and the Taliban were fighting around his home in Sangin, again in the British zone of operations. He too spoke of how large numbers of civilians had been killed and buildings destroyed. Independent confirmation of the claim was unavailable.

Bismatullah, 32, was nostalgic for the days when the Taliban were in power. "There was peace and security and no real fighting. The Taliban were following the path of the Qur'an," he said.

Such sentiments appear widespread. Many refugees interviewed said that the insurgents had not bothered them; others said that, as they had nothing, the Taliban had accepted their refusal to provide food. "They came asking but I showed them my children who are hungry and have no clothes and they left me alone. They get food from the richer people," said one farmer from Sangin.

Elsewhere, however, the refugees said the Taliban demanded food, lodging or even volunteers. "If you have nothing else to give them you have to go with them and they give you a gun and you have to fight. They haven't committed any atrocities but people are afraid of them," said another Sangin resident.

Often, villagers made a distinction between local Taliban they knew personally, such as those apparently operating in Kajaki district, and those who came from elsewhere, sometimes Pakistan, with whom they had more trouble. The real problem, most said, was not the Taliban or the "Amriki", as western troops are universally known, but the combination of the two.

"We had to leave because the Taliban were coming to our village and firing once or twice and there would be a big bombardment and some civilians would die," Ahmed Shah, from Nawazad district, said. The word bombardment has been integrated into local languages . . .

Most of the refugees are destitute, often having borrowed money or sold their last possessions to travel by truck to Kabul. The unauthorised camp has been established on unused government land. There is no sanitation and summer temperatures reach 40C (104F). They live on scraps of stale bread scavenged from rubbish piles across the city. . .

Government estimates place the number of internally displaced by the conflict at 10,000, though aid agencies believe the true total is seven times greater.

[Said Ali of Gerishk district, Helmand:] "There was fighting with the Taliban and local people shooting at the soldiers and then the planes were coming. My house was destroyed, my animals were killed, my brother injured. We have nothing there and we have nothing here." (link)
Note one person interviewed says that Taliban fighters, in his experience, don't impose themselves on the poor, choosing to seek (or extort) from the wealthier. This isn't the first time that Burke has reported this phenomenon:
[R]efugees who have fled from [Wardak] province to Kabul said that exploitation of local communities by the Taliban was rare. 'They ask the landowners for food, but not us,' said Roz Ali, 42. 'Anyway we have nothing to give.' However, taxes are sometimes levied on farm production - including opium. (link)
  • "More and more, people here look back to the era of harsh Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, describing it as a time of security and peace," says the Washington Post's Pamela Constable.

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