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Afghanistan Journal

Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton, who just returned from assignment in Afghanistan, shares his observations about life in a country now in its third decade of war.

September 24, 2009 at 9:15 AM

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A squatter's camp in Kabul

Posted by Hal Bernton

Kabul --- There is no doubt about the poverty that afflicts the hundreds of men, women and children who live in a squatter's camp spread alongside a roadway on the southeast edge of Kabul.

There is no running water, no sewage facilities and a minimal diet supplemented by rice, flour, oil and dates donated by a Saudi aid group.

The situation is so dire that three children have died in the camp in the past several months, according to Mohammed Abrahim, who serves as a liason between the camp residents and the Afghan government.

But there is a lot of mystery about just where these people came from, and why they are so desperate - a tale I tried and ultimately failed to unravel as I got schooled in the difficulties of reporting here in Afghanistan.

In three visits to the camp, I interviewed a half dozen people who said they had fled from Helmand Province, scene of some of the worst fighting.

They said their village has been under the control of the Taliban who shut down the schools, and forced the boys to get their education at the mosques. Then NATO forces began their campaign, and the villagers said they ended up caught in the middle. On three separate dates, in three different villages, they reported that NATO gun ships attacked their homes, causing extensive civilian casualties.

Fathers spoke of burying young children, then fleeing to provincial cities where the Taliban threatened to kill them if they didn't join the insurgency.

"We didn't even have time to give them a proper funeral," said Mohammed Khan.

There is no doubt that such civilian casualties do occur. Trying to reduce them has been a focal point of the new strategy released this summer by NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrsystal. There also has been a push to improve efforts to compensate civilians who have suffered injuries or the loss of family members.

These wrenching tales seemed to provide further evidence of the human costs of this war. The plight of these people as they tried to hang on in the squatter's camp made their stories all the more compelling.

Their presence on public land troubled Kabul government officials, who said it was an illegal camp in a city struggling to cope with big increases in impoverished residents. Earlier this month, Afghan police raided the camp, knocking down the mud walls of their makeshift shelters and warning of a return visit.

"They came and destroyed our homes, and told us we had to get out of here," Khan said. "They told us next time we come, we will burn down your tents."

The police did come and knock down the homes. But when I went to talk to investigators with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the rest of the story got murky.

On three separate occasions, investigators visited the camp to try to find people displaced by war. They are charged with helping these people find housing, food and other resettlement aid.

One of the U.N. investigators, Hayatuallah, talked to the same people I did. And each time, he said, they offered a different story about where they were from.
First, they said they came from another part of Kabul. Then, they said came from a part of Pakistan, and finally, they claimed to have come from Helmand.

But their knowledge of the people and places in this southern province seemed vague. And follow-up interviews with women in the camp didn't verify the men's story.

In the end, Hayatuallah concluded the camp occupants weren't from Helmand. Mostly likely, they were nomadic people pushed to Kabul by the poverty that envelopes so much of this land.

In Afghanistan, war victims get priority care. So, Hayatuallah figures that as the situation grew more desperate at the camp, the people came up with the story that would get them the most help.

It's a sad state of affairs. With winter coming on, these people sorely need
blankets and other supplies to help them survive.

For the cost of a few armored Humvees, a lot could be done to improve the conditions at this camp. These people need help no matter where they came from.

I still have some lingering doubts as I think back on my interviews with Khan..

Was he really making up the story about the death of his two daughters? Could the story somehow be true?

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About the author

Hal Bernton has been a staff reporter for The Seattle Times since 2000. He has roamed widely around the Northwest for regional reporting and to help in the newspaper's military coverage. His oversees assignments have taken him to Russia, Algeria, Aceh Province in Indonesia and Iraq in December of 2003 and January of 2004.

Related links

Afghan News Center News of Afghanistan written by Afghanistan journalists.
McClatchy News Service: Dispatches from Afghanistan and beyond.
Talking with the Taliban: A Toronto Globe and Mail series.
Foreign Policy Blog on Afghanistan
Michael Yon: Embedded blogger Michael Yon posts front-line dispatches.
Washington Post's Afghanistan/Pakistan site
Abdulhadi Hairan: Afghan writer reflects on events in Iraq
GlobalPost's Taliban project: Features wide-ranging coverage of Afghanistan.