Refugees from Afghanistan's Helmand province disheartened at U.S. presence

Refugees from Helmand feel caught between NATO troops and Taliban forces.
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 22, 2010; 12:45 AM

KABUL - For those who have escaped Afghanistan's worst violence, some things are hard to forget: the sight of a woman's hair entangled in the mulberry branches, her legs strewn far away in the dirt. Or the sounds they heard as they hid in an underground hole, counting the bombs to pass the time, praying the American troops would leave.

Some of those Afghans have tiptoed in the footsteps of neighbors to avoid the mines. They've been hit with shrapnel and tied with flex cuffs, threatened by the Taliban and frightened by the coalition, seen relatives shot and homes destroyed. And so they left Helmand province and made their way to this dirt lot on the outskirts of Kabul, where month by month the settlement expands with those who have come to wait out the war.

"In a situation like this," said Sayid Mohammad, a Helmand native who has spent the past year at the refugee camp, "how could I ever go home?"

As President Obama and his advisers assess the Afghan war, Helmand province, an arid and impoverished swath of southern Afghanistan, will be an important gauge of progress. Helmand is the place with the highest concentration of American troops, and the site of the first major operation under the new military strategy, when U.S. Marines in February retook the Taliban-held town of Marja. Coalition commander Gen. David H. Petraeus now points to parts of Helmand, such as Nawa, as examples of counterinsurgency success.

But the Helmand refugees living in this squalid camp, known as Charahi Qambar, offer a bleaker assessment. They blame insecurity on the presence of U.S. and British troops, and despite official claims of emerging stability, these Afghans believe their villages are still too dangerous to risk returning.

"Where is security? The Americans are just making life worse and worse, and they're destroying our country," said Barigul, a 22-year-old opium farmer from the Musa Qala district of Helmand who, like many Afghans, has only one name. "If they were building our country, why would I leave my home town and come here?"

The first families to set up tents at the site arrived in 2007, and the camp has since grown to more than 1,000 families, making it the largest of some 30 informal settlements around Kabul. They consist of two main groups, about 800 families who claim to come from the Helmand area and about 200 families who say they come from Tajikistan, according to a United Nations official who works on refugee issues.

The residents say they are mostly farmers who brought their bundles by bus and taxi to live in these mud hovels or under scraps of tarp. It is a place of wailing children and dirt-caked faces, where husbands search for menial labor and wives burn heaps of trash to cook their daily gruel.

Stuck in the middle

Ahunzada, a 35-year-old mullah, gets by on meager donations from other refugees, given to him as payment for teaching Islamic classes and leading the daily prayers in a low-ceilinged makeshift mosque built from mud. Two years ago, he left his opium fields in Sangin, one of the most violent parts of Helmand, which British troops recently handed over to U.S. Marines after taking casualties for four years.

"Every day, fighting is going on there. The more infidels who come to our country, the more Afghans die, and the less safe we become," he said.

Ahunzada has little affection for the Taliban. His father, Mohammad Gul Agha, and his brother, Abdul Zahir, both died when a fireball engulfed their car on the road to the provincial capital. The insurgents, he said, had planted the bomb to target a passing U.S. military convoy.

"We are not happy from either side, but I believe the British and American troops are more cruel than the Taliban," he said. "I have seen it happen: The Taliban come on motorbikes, they open fire, then they leave. Then the Americans just come and kill us, they bomb us, they open fire on us, they kill the children and innocent people."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company