Afghan Women in the Refugee Camps

By Deb Ellis

Houses made of mud, tents made of rags. Open sewers along the narrow pathways. Children without schools, adults without work, families without food or health-care, people without homes. This is the Nasir Bagh refugee camp.

I was in Pakistan last fall, spending time with the Afghan refugee community as part of my work with Women For Women In Afghanistan, a small Canadian solidarity group. The purpose of the trip was to find out how we, back in Canada, could be more useful to Afghan women.

The Nasir Bagh refugee camp is near Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. It has been there for over 18 years. A whole generation of Afghans has come of age within its mud walls.

During the Cold War, foreign aid flowed into the area like a fast moving river. Since the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the river has dried up. The aid has stopped, but the tremendous need is still there. Every day, there are new arrivals at Nasir Bagh, Afghans who have made the dangerous journey away from their homeland to the shaky refuge of Pakistan.

I was taken to Nasir Bagh by two male Afghans who live outside the camp (women do not go unescorted). Initially, it was a relief to get away from the noise, exhaust, and crowds of Peshawar, and out into the countryside - until we reached the bleakness of the camp.

Driving through the main body of the camp, we reached an area on the edge where new arrivals were fashioning shelters out of whatever they could find. Cloth patched with all shapes of worn fabric was stretched across crude poles leaning into each other. Mud had been banked along the walls of the tents, for added protection when the weather was dry. When it rained, there was no protection.

We presented a diversion for the children, who followed us from tent to tent, eager to introduce me to their mothers. There were only women and children around, except for one man who carried a big stick which he used to hit some of the children when they got too close to me. I asked my guides to tell him to stop, but they were unable to. I wasn't able to find out who he was or why he was whacking those small heads.

Every tent I went to, every mud-hovel I visited, the routine was the same - women who had nothing welcomed me with a smile and invited me in for tea. I doubt that I could be as hospitable in similar circumstances.

The refuge offered in Nasir Bagh and other camps and settlements in Pakistan is tenuous and getting worse. The Pakistani government wants the refugees to go back to Afghanistan. (The Pakistani government supports the Taleban regime, and therefore sees no reason why Afghans cannot return home.)

Promoting repatriation

The Pakistani government is not alone in wanting the Afghans to return. Aid projects for Afghans are all geared now toward repatriation, even though return to Afghanistan would mean returning to war, land-mines, hunger, and the Teleban's brutal dictates.

The Pakistani government has taken aggressive action to force the refugees to leave. According to Afghan doctor Abdul Raziq Mobinzai, last summer the government cut off all power and running water in some of the camps. Many children and old people died in the oppressive heat.

Security for Afghans in all of Pakistan is getting worse. The Pakistani police have free rein to harass and intimidate Afghans.

"There are Afghan children sitting in jail, waiting for their parents to have enough money to pay ransom to the police," says Adeena Niazi, President of the Afghan Women's Organization in Canada. Police regularly stop Afghans in the street for questioning and searches. Bribery is a regular feature of these incidents.

Bulldoze the camp?

The Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, a Washington-based organization, was in Peshawar last January, and spent time in Nasir Bagh. They heard horror stories from women there of groups of men prowling the camp at night, gang-raping women. Young girls and boys are being forced into and sold into prostitution, and there is speculation that the Pakistani police have a hand in this. Violence against women is virulent, its victims having no recourse in law nor any means of escape.

As horrible as Nasir Bagh is, it is preferable to returning to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Pakistani government has plans to bulldoze the camp in the near future, and use the land for condominiums - and not condominiums for Afghans.

International Women's Day this year was dedicated by European women to the women of Afghanistan. Emma Bonino, the European Union's Humanitarian Aid Commissioner, headed the call to women around the world to urge their governments to pressure the Taleban to respect basic human rights, including the rights of women. Many of the Women's Day marches reflected that call.

In addition to public awareness and political pressure, our solidarity group is focusing on two areas: income-generating projects for women, and education for girls. With money raised in Canada, we have been able to purchase sewing machines to enable women in the camps to earn a living. We are looking for Canadian markets for some of the goods the women produce.

Afghan children have no access to Pakistan's educational system, and instead attend, when they can afford to, schools run by Afghan teachers. These schools operate on budgets of almost nothing, with few school supplies or teacher resources.

With pressure on the refugees to return to Afghanistan, where education is denied to girls, it is vital that Afghan girls get as much education in Pakistan as possible. We are working on projects that will make it easier for girls to get to school and to stay there.

Building a better school

For example, the Fathema-tu-Zahra school for girls in Peshawar is over capacity. Five of their classes meet in tents that are freezing in winter, stifling in summer, and damp all the time. Children have been developing chronic back problems and having to leave school. We were able to raise funds for the construction of proper classrooms, and will be furnishing those classrooms in the coming months.

As well, we have a school-twinning project, matching schools in the refugee communities in Quetta and Peshawar with schools in Canada. The students exchange letters and drawings, and the Canadian students raise money for school supplies for their Afghan counterparts. The Canadian kids learn about issues of war, refugees, and gender, and the Afghan kids learn that they have not been forgotten by the rest of the world.

What is really needed, of course, is a just government in Kabul, one that respects and encourages the talents of all of its citizens. The prospects for that are as remote as ever.

For more information, and to participate in our projects, please contact Women for Women In Afghanistan, Box 204, Dunnville, Ontario, N1A 2X5 905-774-8091.

Deb Ellis is active in nonviolence work.

Support the Afghan Women

The Afghan Women's Network is a small group of Afghan women in Islamabad and Peshawar. They are probably the only group doing workshops around gender issues with Afghan women and with non-governmental organizations that are working in the area. They also use e-mail to provide an information link-up with women's groups around the world.

They need materials dealing with organization-building and gender issues. Anyone with materials (in English is fine), please send them to the Afghan Women's Network, P.O. Box 426, Islamabad, Pakistan.

Peace Magazine May-June 1998

Peace Magazine May-June 1998, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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