“The sky is my roof and the earth is my floor,” she said, gesturing across the dust-swept plains toward the minarets of the ancient city of Herat. But the words from her chapped swollen lips are of
bitterness rather than romance.
It is more than a week since she and her five children had their last meal – a begged bowl of rice – and on Friday she woke to find her two-year-old son Tahir stiff and cold, frozen to death in the
While the West celebrates the surrender of Kandahar and the collapse of the Taliban, here in Maslakh camp in western Afghanistan there is no celebratory slaughtering of goats or distribution of
sweets, but only weeping and funerals.
It is a place that has been largely ignored by Western governments and aid agencies; harrowing images of the starving and dying have not been seen in the world’s newspapers or on television because
journalists and camera crews have been elsewhere inAfghanistan, concentrating on the war. But because it hasn’t been seen in its vivid
awfulness doesn’t lessen the terrible suffering that goes on here.
Every night as the temperature dips well below zero, as many as 40 people die from cold and starvation. In the six cemeteries scattered through the camp, many of the piles of stones marking graves
are so tiny that it is clear most victims are children and babies.
Bibi Gul and the other tent-less people ofHeratare the refugee crisis that the aid
agencies were all predicting two months ago, but inside rather than outsideAfghanistan.
Hundreds of thousands of people are sleeping in the open, having fled drought and famine in the north and central parts of the country that before the war were completely reliant on foreign aid but
are now cut off by the winter.
At first sight Maslakh looks like any of the other vast Afghan refugee camps scattered around Pakistan and Iran, though it is chilling to discover that its name means slaughterhouse, after the
abattoir that was here in the days when there were cattle to slaughter.
There are row upon row of tents, and occasional feeding stations at which boys queue on one side and women on the other, waiting for hours for a bowl of unappetising grey gruel made of sugar oil and
flour which is the daily ration per family.
Along the road towardsIranthat passes through Maslakh, it takes almost 20 minutes by car
to reach the end of the camp which, according to Faghir Ullah, the camp administrator, now houses 800,000 people, though a survey by the French agency Medecins sans Frontieres, which has a clinic in the camp, put the number at
The true figure probably lies somewhere in between, but it stretches for miles in ever-descending human misery as tents turn to plastic sheets pinned to the ground, and then to no shelter at
These latest arrivals, people who have come since the Taliban started to collapse a month ago, are mainly Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks. Sitting on blankets on the ground in their colourful garb of
purples, turquoises and pinks, with round-cheeked faces, at first they looked like market traders.
But as I got out of the car, the first journalist to visit the camp, it quickly became clear that something was wrong. Many of the people were not moving.
The children were not playing, not even crying, and many were too weak to walk. Some sucked at their clothes and hair, seeking nutrition anywhere. Others lay in bundles on the ground. Old women
stretched out hands, fingers blackened and eaten away by frostbite.
Walking through, hands grabbed at me. “A tent”, “a sheet of plastic”, “a piece of bread”, came the pleas, voiced through parched lips while women thrust small babies at me, sobbing. Not one had any
food; all claimed not to have eaten for more than a week.
I have been to most of the big Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan as well as many refugee camps in Africa but I have never seen people in such harrowing conditions. One man, Lal Mohammed, led me to
his dying wife, shivering under a blanket and moaning occasionally. Their 12-year-old daughter Mariam died on Thursday. “Imagine not being able to feed your children or to keep them warm, to wake up and find them dead,” he said, ” please help
us, we have lost everything, even our dignity.”
Most come from the northern provincesof Faryab, Ghor and Sar-e-Pul as well as Ghazni in centralAfghanistan, mountainous places to which the World Food Programme was giving food aid but stopped because of the bombing. Now their villages cannot be reached because the passes are cut off.
All told the same story. “We had a good life,” Zarha Hussaini, a single mother of five, whose husband died of tuberculosis six months ago
having twice been imprisoned by the Taliban, handed me her nine-month baby who weighed so little – less than my notebook – that I almost dropped her. “We sold everything to come here as there was nothing left but sky and earth,” she said. During
the 25-day trip by foot over the passes, then by truck, they lived off grass and sucked water from fungus scraped off rocks. One
can only wonder at conditions that would persuade people to give up all and walk for as long as a month.
The overwhelmed camp authorities have refused to register them which means they have no right to the tents and gruel. “They just tell us to get out and beat us and even the children if we do not
move from the registration office,” said Bibi Gul, who came 10 days ago with her four children, her blind husband and a group of five families from Ghazni.
Already three children of their party have died. “When we woke they were all wrapped around each other,” she said.
One difficulty is that the new administration of Ismael Khan, the Mujahideen commander who took over as Governor, does not yet have the officials in place. Also there is so much poverty in
Heratthat even non-refugees are registering. But there is another problem too. One of the three funerals that took place in the morning of my
visit was for Neclayu, a 35-year-old Pathan mother of three who had died of cold in the night.
My guard spat on the ground and pulled a black turban off one of the mourners. “Taliban,” he said.
Many of the tent-less people are Pathans who fled when Herat fell two weeks ago and are regarded with suspicion by the local majority Sunni and Shia population who fear that once the Americans leave
Afghanistan they will try to recapture the city.
There is also an absolute lack of resources. “We don’t have enough food for the old population, let alone the newcomers,” said Faghir Ullah, the camp administrator. “We know people are dying but we
have nothing to give them.”
“The world made us lots of promises,” Ismail Khan, the Governor of Herat, told The Telegraph. “Now people are dying and it has no excuse not to act.”
There is anger that the outside world keeps talking about Afghanistan yet seems to them to be focusing only on ousting the Taliban and Osama bin Laden rather than tackling the conditions which led
to them taking over the country.
“When the Taliban fell we thought the international community would help us,” complained Zarha. “I’m so angry and depressed I even dream of leaving my children here and walking away. If you are a
mother can you imagine ever saying that?” Pushing her veil off her hair, Bibi Gul said: “Now I can show my face whereas under the Taliban I wouldn’t dare walk around like this or I would be beaten. But what is the use of that if every night you
go to bed with empty stomachs?
“We thought after the Taliban that life would be better, but now I don’t even know if we’ll survive.”