The Afghan-Tajik Border: Caught between Countries

Refugees in this region cling to a dismal life

They are bored and depressed. For 13 months they have been living in mud huts on an island in a malaria-infested river that acts as a buffer zone separating Afghanistan from Tajikistan. They have seen their ranks stricken by disease and malnutrition, and with winter approaching, more deaths are expected. They'd like to return to their villages in the Kunduz province of North Afghanistan. But the area is controlled by the Taliban, which evicted them from their homes in a rampage last year. And the government of Tajikistan, an impoverished former Soviet Republic of 6.2 million, is unwilling to accept them.

So the 1,554 refugees at Site No. 13, one of a handful of island camps on the Pyanzh River, remain stranded in a vigil that seems without end. They represent one of the many political challenges that will face the U.S. as it seeks to bring a measure of stability to Afghanistan and surrounding territories affected by the war there. The inhabitants of Site No. 13 are among 10,000 refugees from Afghanistan living in the Pyanzh camps. Largely consisting of ethnic Uzbek and Tajiks, they are loyal to the Northern Alliance, the group that is trying, with U.S. and Russian assistance, to expel the Taliban from Afghanistan.

Joined by a Russian television cameraman from a Moscow TV station, BusinessWeek paid a visit to Site No. 13 on Oct. 11--four days after the U.S. and Britain began bombing Afghanistan. The refugees, who receive limited food and medical assistance from overburdened relief agencies, are located 350 kilometers from the Tajik capital of Dushanbe. It's an arduous drive along a potholed road guarded by the Russian defense forces that also protect the country from Taliban incursions.

STARK CONTRAST. There are plenty of signs of life along the route. Peanuts, pomegranates, and green tea can be bought at the bazaar in the town of Kolhozobad, as can cigarettes, antibiotics, and stationery. Persian music--the Tajiks are a Persian, Farsi-speaking people--blares on a loudspeaker. But Site No. 13, across from a Russian-patrolled border-post strewn with mines, is silent. Huddled on the stone-choked bed of the drought-parched Pyanzh, the refugees, in robes and turbans, spy reporters but keep a cautious, mute distance.

They are not shy, explains camp guardian Haroon Nazari, a 25-year-old Kabul native. They are afraid. Assured by Russian army chaperones that there's nothing to worry about, the refugees pull closer and listen as Nazari explains that the camp knows about the U.S. bombardment of Afghanistan but cannot hear or see the impact of it. Taliban tanks, however, are sometimes spotted.

"DETERIORATION." Nearby stands the camp's primary school, a collection of mud huts. The camp's 170 children, aged 6 to 16, assemble to sing a martial anthem pledging their willingness to sacrifice for the Afghanistan motherland. They may not get that chance. Merlin, a London-based nongovernmental medical relief organization, has vaccinated many of the children against measles and polio, but they are succumbing to other potentially fatal illnesses, such as dysentery. "There is a big deterioration on Site 13," says Paul Handley, Merlin's coordinator in Tajikistan.

The relief group is preparing to deliver the refugees medical assistance upon their return to Northern Afghanistan--if, that is, the Taliban collapses. But it's also possible that the refugees' embattled enemy might overrun more villages, prompting additional numbers to seek refuge on the Pyanzh island camps--where they can sit and wait, and try to ward off death, like the inhabitants of Site No. 13.

By Paul Starobin on the Tajik-Afghan border

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