You’ve seen the footage on CNN of the refugee camps in places like the Sudan and other war-torn nations. The reports usually feature shots of hundreds of skinny children with dirty faces and tattered clothing; of makeshift shelters constructed of flimsy wood and rope and UNHCR-embossed tarpaulins; of an aid worker at a vat of gruel dishing meals to camp residents; and possibly a medical tent with a red cross on the side with a line of patients waiting, exposed to the elements. The refugee camp I visited recently in Kabul featured the first two: plenty of dirty kids, many of them shoeless, in light clothing even though winter snow has arrived; and housing constructed from scrap sheets of plastic, mud and blankets. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much in the way of food or medical care.
This camp is a settlement of fifty families displaced by war or poverty. Or both, since both ravage Afghanistan and hundreds of thousands of people continually move to Kabul in hope of finding work and food. I’m not sure if the Afghan government provided the land for this camp – a 200 x 200 yard expanse of dirt near the middle of the city – or if the people here are squatters. It doesn’t really matter much, as many, if not most, of the residents of Kabul are quite poor, and they live on land to which they have no legal claim. They settle on plots of land relished by no one.
Such as the hillsides. The city of Kabul rests in a valley surrounded by mountains and impressive hills. If this were Hollywood, expensive homes would occupy the highlands, providing fabulous views of the metropolis. In Kabul, the higher you live in the hills, the poorer you must be. No roads climb up the hills. There are no water wells up there. My Afghan coworkers find it unbelievable that wealthy people would even consider a residence in the hills in the United States. When they see a house high on a hill, they think about the daily circuit those residents must make down and the back up the hill simply to fetch fresh water.
The refugee camp was on flat ground, but it had no well that I saw. The sector of the city surrounding the camp seemed sparsely populated, possibly because the land is so unfit for human occupation. The camp “latrine” was a corner of the settlement designated for waste. I saw no fire wood, only dung balls, rolled from the excrement of the few head of cattle in the camp that the refugees burn as fuel for their fires. For comical juxtaposition, an elaborate wedding banquet hall stood a few hundred meters away, and across the street was a building billed as the “Afghan Economical and Social Development Exhibition.”
I went to the settlement with two dozen other military personnel from my base to distribute cooking oil, blankets, clothing and toys to the camp residents. Oftentimes these trips can be raucous, as the desperate people, both children and adults, will swarm you and try desperately to grab hold of anything you might be able to offer them. In fact, I left my wallet and keys in my office for this trip, as kids oftentimes will search your pockets for goods while you are engulfed in a crowd of fifty of their friends. Thankfully, though, this group was relatively orderly. The elders from the camp did a nice job of keeping order, mostly by swatting children back from the supply truck as we tried to unload it.
This place was without question the most wretched human settlement I have ever encountered. I’m not Angelina Jolie, but I’ve seen some pretty desperate communities both permanent and temporary on a few different continents. Yet no place I have ever visited before embodied the perfect storm of malnutrition, disease and foul weather that marked this camp. A few infants in their mothers’ arms appeared obtunded. Every child looked malnourished. Congenital malformations, lazy eyes, and dermatologic maladies were the norm among the children, who played among cows and goats and the droppings that accompanied those animals. A good number of the men had limbs either twisted from untreated trauma, or missing altogether. No one appeared to have bathed in a long time. No one wore clothing proper for an Afghan winter, and if they had shoes they likely were sandals. Everyone bore a rather thick film of dirt on their skin.
Several families lived in hovels carved from the side of a hill, sometimes featuring a mud brick wall. Those were the prime pieces of real estate. The majority of people lived in tents or shelters made of nothing more than plastic sheeting. None of these residences provided much protection from the cold. None of them had functioning doors. And the temperatures in Kabul have dropped precipitously the past few weeks, with snow arriving just a few days ago. Maybe the cold was what led me to think, as I stood and looked around the camp, that it doesn’t get any worse than this. It couldn’t get worse, because any worse and you simply could not survive.
We distributed toys to the children and supplies to the adults, but I noticed that I didn’t see much of what we provided shortly after we handed it out. A few boys kicked soccer balls that we brought them, but otherwise you were challenged to see a stuffed animal or any other toy we had provided. I learned from an interpreter that both the children and adults quickly take their new possessions and hide them, probably in their shelters, either to protect them from theft or to preserve them for the future. Most of these people possess little more than what they wear and carry with them each day, and they want to preserve anything new or novel that they acquire.
Even though I had trouble finding many kids with their new toys, I had no problem finding residents who wanted to pose for photographs. I have written before that most Afghans are proud to pose for photographs, no matter what their socioeconomic or physical condition. The rarely seem to consider an avid photographer a voyeur. In fact, they can get surly and indignant if you don’t photograph them. The only exception to this is that many Afghan women, for purposes of modesty, will shy away from the camera. In this settlement, however, almost everyone waived for me to photograph them. One stately, elderly gentleman held a pose for several minutes while the Americans flocked around him like paparazzi. A father kept herding his children back to the front of their mud hut so that we could get shots of the entire family, including the wife. It was difficult to photograph a solitary child you might find especially cute, because a virtual swarm of other children would enter the frame when they saw you had a camera.
The snow fell heavier this morning, the day after I visited the camp. I walked to breakfast with a colleague who had organized the trip, and I told him as we entered the dining facility that I was wondering how those poor children in the camp were doing today. He said he was thinking the same thing.
Note: The internet speed here rivals dial-up velocity circa 1992. I cannot upload photographs of the refugee camp today. I will try again another day, as a few of the photographs will tell the tale of this camp much better than I am able to describe it.