Dateline: Pakistan

Out of one hell and into another

Peter Niesewand October 20 1980
Dateline: Pakistan

Out of one hell and into another

Peter Niesewand October 20 1980

Out of one hell and into another

Dateline: Pakistan

It's a sad story that the Pakistani commanders of Afghan refugee camps have to tell. In the area around the

northwest frontier province town of Peshawar, they complain they haven’t been paid for three months. But when one representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed his concern at the failure of Pakistan’s military government to pay the wages with international handouts being liberally provided, the camp commander offered to

buy him a Coke. The UNHCR man recalled that when the commander pulled out his wallet, it was bulging with 100rupee notes. Like so many places in the world, it’s child’s play taking money off the UN. There is very little control and hardly any accounting. As one UNHCR employee said bitterly: “Really, we are an operation without balls.”

Last year, the UN budget to help Afghan refugees was $12 million. In February this year, it had gone up to $64 million. By June, a supplementary budget took it to more than $114 million. It’s known locally as “the great refugee ripoff.” And no one has any idea how to curb the corruption which, at a conservative estimate, is siphoning off at least $22 million a year.

“UNHCR has enough staff to conduct the operation, but not to do thorough checking,” commented one Western diplomat. “Most of the food, clothing, bedding, medical supplies and tents are distributed through local officials. A lot is simply siphoned off.” The easiest way of doing this is by falsifying the numbers of refugees. The Pakistanis claim that more than one million Afghans have fled into their country following the Soviet invasion. In the province of Baluchistan, the official number of refugees is 195,233. UNHCR men believe it is closer to 100,000. In one case in the Peshawar area, UNHCR officials went to a camp expecting to find the 60 people for whom relief had been claimed. They could find only five.

The UN is used to turning a blind eye to Third World corruption which usually runs at about 10 per cent, but the extent of the Pakistani fraud is demoralizing many workers. Not only are supplies being claimed for refugees who simply do not exist, but the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children

actually there and in need don’t even get their basic entitlement. Their supplies are collected for them—sometimes by leaders of Afghan rebel groups—and a proportion of the supplies are immediately taken to the market and sold.

“Quite a lot of UNHCR money ends up as weapons for the rebels,” one of the UN workers said. “I just wish we could do something about it. Just about everything is wrong. There are refugee camps right on the border, which we don’t like. We want to bring the people out of the danger zone, but when we ask the Pakistanis to do this they just smile and shrug. The International Red Cross wants to fulfil their classic function of providing field hospitals for the sick and the wounded, yet the government flatly refuses to let them do it. Recently in Parachinar [a border town on the refugee trail from Afghanistan], an Afghan boy was admitted to the government hospital with his arm blown off. They charged his parents the equivalent of about $300—a huge amount for refugees. We know this is true, because we saw the accounts. The Red Cross would have done it for free.”

Increasingly, the wounded who come from Afghanistan—after three or four agonizing days riding on mules, with the minimum of medication for shattered limbs—are victims of a new Soviet campaign. The Soviets are relying more and more on antipersonnel mines and booby traps to combat the jihad (holy war) of the Islamic guerrillas. Soviet touch-bombs, concealed in light green plastic and capable of blowing off a hand or foot, are being scattered from helicopters over paths and mountain passes and larger, more deadly land mines are planted around villages.

Khan Wazir, an elderly Afghan, lying in a ward at the Khyber Hospital with his clothes still filthy and bloodstained and his knee shattered by a mine, said that two weeks ago Soviet tanks surrounded his village of Khowst in Paktia province. Then they sent in four supporters of President Babrak Karmal’s Soviet-backed regime to address the people. Wazir said that while these men were making speeches, promising the villages money and arms if they would oppose the Mujahideen (rebels), the Soviets were busy burying land mines around the outskirts. Presumably, if the villagers had agreed to help the Soviets, they would then have been warned to stay away from certain areas. In this case, Khan Wazir said the people grew angry and killed the Afghan agents. The Soviets retaliated by sending in an air strike. As the villagers ran for cover, one group blundered into a newly laid minefield. Wazir said: “About 30 of us were running along a path and this mine exploded. Nine died immediately. Eleven of us were injured.”

The number of casualties caused among groups of people strung out along a road or path indicates that the Soviets may be using bombs designed to send shrapnel scything at knee-height over a wide area. There are constant reports that Soviet helicopters have also scattered booby-trapped toys shaped like parrots, and exploding cigarette packets, pens, lighters, watches and calculators. At the casualty department of the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, Dr. A.M. Safi confirmed that he had personally treated seven or eight booby-trap victims, including children. “They have blast injuries of hands and feet—fingers and toes absolutely blown off,” Safi said. “It is very strange. Only one hand or one foot would be affected, and there would be no other injury on the body. They would say, ‘We saw these toys and we wanted to pick them up, and there was an explosion.’ ”

Peter Niesewand