(MCC News Service ) MILE 46, Afghanistan ” — Two blue derelict Russian trucks with a cable strung between them mark the Afghan border crossing in the desert east of the Iranian city of Zabol.
Friendly armed guards lower the cable and wave an Iranian Red Crescent vehicle through. There seems to be no need for passports or other documentation at this post 2.5 miles inside Afghanistan. The driver shouts a word of thanks, waves and drives on.
A minute later he stops again at another checkpoint within sight of Mile 46, a refuge for Afghans who have also fled their homes because of drought and war.
A guard dressed in a Nike T-shirt, baggy sweat pants, sneakers and a black turban strides out of a makeshift building and gives the vehicle and occupants a quick once-over.
His shirt is too small, and his bare belly sags over his waistband. But the worn AK-47 rifle hanging on his back is a grim reminder that this is serious business. He allows the vehicles to pass.
A sea of tents, erected in neat rows, stretches out on the dusty plain ahead. Mile 46 was established by the Iranian Red Crescent Society, or IRCS, in October 2001 to cope with the growing number of displaced Afghans arriving at the Iranian border. It is located in what had been a Northern Alliance pocket in Afghanistan’s Nimruz province.
Makaki Camp nearby was in Taliban-controlled territory. As Makaki Camp filled up, refugees were referred to Mile 46, exposing them to the additional danger of crossing the demarcation line between the Taliban and Northern Alliance.
There are 5,400 people living in Mile 46 and 5,250 in Makaki Camp. When the U.S. bombing began in October, predictions were that up to 500,000 people would flee toward the safety of Iran.
These huge numbers failed to materialize because of the swift collapse of the Taliban.
With the support of donors, Mennonite Central Committee was able to contribute $200,000 to the IRCS to buy tents and ground cloths for Mile 46 and ship blankets to keep people warm over the winter.
Bags of lentils supplied by Canadian Foodgrains Bank with the support of MCC and other Canadian agencies are distributed periodically as a valuable protein supplement.
Abdul Abi, 55, and his wife and three children hitched rides and walked six days to get to Mile 46 to escape the drought and war in the Kandahar area.
The youngest, 5, often rode on Abdul Abi’s shoulders. It’s been more than three months since they arrived at the camp, and they would like to go back home if there is food and work to return to.
Bibi Kwar lost her husband in a U.S. bombing raid in the Badghis region north of Herat. Their house was destroyed as well, and she and her children have nothing. They traveled 10 days to Mile 46 where members of their extended family are also living. She said she would like to go home if there is a place for them and “if God is kind enough to take care of us.”
With the fall of the Taliban and the approaching spring, many people in the camp want to go home.
“They are worried about the heat [as spring and summer approach] and the health of their children,” said Bruce Huntwork, an MCC medical worker living in Iran with his wife, Ann. The Huntworks lived in Iran for 10 years in the 1960s and ’70s and are fluent in Farsi, the local language.
As the weather turns warmer, living in the tents will become unbearable because of the heat and the increased threat of infectious disease.
“We can close the camp when it gets hot, but that would be sending people to their death,” said Ali Karimi, general manager of the provincial IRCS branch responsible for the camp.
Most of the refugees have nothing to go back to, and security concerns are still an issue in many parts of the country.
“It would take a coalition of organizations to move the people. The cost would be very high,” Karimi said.
People in the camp are reasonably well taken care of. Each family gets a daily ration of lentils, rice, bread, oil and high-protein biscuits. They also receive blankets, kitchen utensils and jerry cans for water.
Meanwhile, more could be done for the refugees in the camps.
But the challenge is striking a balance between caring for their basic needs and encouraging them to move on when it is safe and reasonable to do so, Karimi said.
This article was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.