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."
U.S. commanders say they have made reducing civilian casualties a top priority, and they say their soldiers accept more risk in order to minimize collateral damage.
At the camp, Ahunzada's wife has carpeted the walls and floors of their hut with blankets, but the cold last winter claimed the life of their 1-year-old son, Ahmad Shah. His elder brother, Shahfiullah, now coughs and sniffles in the morning chill.
"I look at him and I have to leave the house like a thief," Ahunzada said. "My son is asking me to bring him something, buy me fruit, buy me an apple. If I don't have any money, what should I bring him?"
To help feed the eight members of his family now living in the camp, Barigul has turned to making bricks, buying dirt from the trucks on the highway, and mixing it with sand and water. As an opium farmer in Musa Qala, he could make $60 a month. Here, he is lucky to earn half that.
"What we are earning is just hand to mouth," he said.
Barigul and his family left Helmand last month. He said the decision was the culmination of long-running harassment from American troops and their insurgent enemies. He has been detained, he said, accused of planting bombs, searched at checkpoints, and slapped in the face by foreign troops. Outside the Musa Qala district center, where American troops are dominant, the Taliban patrol the villages, block children from attending school and kill Afghans accused of collaborating with foreigners.
"If we grew our beards, the Americans arrested us and put us in jail saying we were Taliban. If we shaved, the Taliban gave us a hard time," he said. "What are we supposed to do, shave half of our beard?"
While camp residents describe themselves as the war's collateral damage, caught between two rival forces, they also clearly want foreign troops to depart.
"Who are the Taliban? They are our brothers, our cousins, our relatives. The problem is the Americans," said Lala Jan, 25, also from Musa Qala. "If somebody attacks from one house, the Americans bomb the whole place. If the Taliban come inside, during the night the Americans come and raid the house. That's the problem."More are now displaced
As the number of foreign troops has risen - there are now about 140,000 U.S. and allied NATO soldiers on the ground - the population of those who have been displaced from their homes and have moved elsewhere in Afghanistan has also grown. The number has risen from 235,000 in 2008 to 295,000 as of January 2010, according to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office. Of the 2,300 displaced families living in Kabul, more than half have come from Helmand province, said Abdul Rahim, Afghanistan's deputy minister for refugees and repatriation.
He said many Helmand residents come to Kabul looking for work, rather than fleeing violence.
"These people claim that because of security they have escaped that area. Now it's become a business for them. Because everybody helps them and gives them things," he said. "They should go back. But nobody can force them to go back. [It] doesn't look good to force them."
Those living at the camp deny Rahim's claims. The United Nations official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on the record, said that "the truth is somewhere in between."
"There are conflict-affected displaced persons living in Charahi Qambar, but that is by no means a clear-cut designation describing all who live there," the official said. "There are also urban migrants in search of work and semi-nomadic groups who have never settled permanently anywhere in Afghanistan."
Mohammad, a 36-year-old imam, said that during the Marine operation in Marja, his family hid in a hole, covered by boards, for 12 days as the Taliban fought Americans from house to house. This spring his mother-in-law's home in Marja was obliterated by an American bomb, he said, killing six of his relatives.
"It was impossible to stay," he said. "The house had collapsed.
"If I go back to Marja, I will have to pick a side," he said. "If I support the foreign forces, the Taliban will behead me. If I join the Taliban, I will also get killed."
For many, the lure to return remains strong. The rain seeps into Ahunzada's hovel. Without a steady income, he must hoard his supply of sugar and salt. With the coming cold, he dreads losing his other son. He lies on the floor at night and yearns to return to Helmand.
"I keep thinking I should go back to my village, either to cultivate opium or to stand alongside the Taliban. Then at least I will have money. I could send it to my wife and son," he said. "I think about this every night."
Yet he is not quite ready.
"When the infidels leave our province, on the next day I will go home."
firstname.lastname@example.org Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.