Edge of the World

May 2, 2001

high jagged mountains, dry air, and a hell of a lot of sky. Now imagine it without any good roads. Add to that a drought and the knowledge that the people who live where you used to herd your goats want to kill you.

Welcome to the refugee camps of Baluchistan. Since 1979, when Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan, over two million people have fled to this stony, dusty part of Pakistan. These settlements have taken on a grim permanence. Originally disorganized tent cities, many are now full of mud-walled dwellings and narrow, winding streets. Schools and clinics have been built by various nongovernmental organizations, and basic government has been established courtesy of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. A third generation is now growing up in this interminable tragedy.

Outsiders aren’t allowed into these camps. They are in “tribal areas” that aren’t under the direct control of the Pakistani government. Here, tribal chieftains keep the peace, based on their ancient systems of kinship, honor, and a tradition of armed-to-the-teeth independence that goes back more than six centuries.

Today it’s not at all uncommon to see tall, fierce-eyed Pathan tribesmen walking about the bazaars in traditional beards and loose turbans, AK-47s held lightly in one hand like they’ve been there since boyhood. So when my local contact arranged for me to visit a refugee camp, I wasn’t surprised to see a couple of these guys grinning in the back of the Jeep, their AKs between their knees.

“We have to bring them,” my contact explained, “so if we get killed or kidnapped it becomes a tribal issue. Without them we’re on our own, and nobody cares what happens to us.”

The ride out to the camp took several hours from Quetta, the rough-and-tumble provincial capital. We passed a couple of checkpoints without incident. If asked, I was supposed to show a permit that had been issued for someone else – out here, my guide explained, the guards are all illiterate.

The camp is a low sprawl of mud compounds stretching up toward dry mesas on both sides of a parched, rocky riverbed. More medieval than modern, this settlement lacks any of the reference points that define life in my world: electricity, running water, stores, billboards, or any signs at all for that matter. No cars, except those belonging to the aid projects. Even the donkey carts were few and far between.

About 5,000 families are simply trapped there. Unable to return to Afghanistan, unable to find asylum abroad, and unable to move deeper into Pakistan, they live on in this arid limbo as though cast adrift from the world.

We visited a school, where the teacher told me about some of the difficulties her program faces. Literacy rates are abysmal: about 20 percent in Baluchistan, and just 2 percent among women in the region. The students from these schools cannot go on to university as their diplomas are not recognized. Sometimes the curriculum itself seemed to the teacher like a cruel joke: what’s the use of teaching these kids to understand books they’ll never get a chance to read, or to recite histories they’ll never get a chance to change?

“For the most part,” she told me, “these kids will be lucky to harvest onions for a living.” But still she teaches them. Like the other aid workers here – Pakistani, Afghan, and foreigner alike – she’s driven by a wish to change these desperate lives.

At the health clinic things were no better. The camp is rife with tuberculosis, dysentery, typhoid, and malaria. In the concrete courtyard between the men’s and women’s sections of the clinic the doctor introduced me to a little boy with a bad leg and a homemade crutch. Polio.

Across the road from the clinic was a run-down playground that had been transformed from a field of stones by the addition of a few swing sets. We went down to meet the kids, but they were a little skittish at the arrival of this weird foreigner and his gunmen.

I wondered what the future might hold for these kids. For all their grubbiness and the occasional hacking cough, they looked fine: happy to have the sunshine and the field of stones to play in. But I could not help thinking of the unseen things going on around them. I thought of the water turning salty in their wells, the diseases in the camp, the slave traders who bought children here for sale abroad, the guns, the heroin factories that provide most of the local income, the fundamentalists, the drought, and the fact that they had nowhere to go.

But the saddest part is that life here at the edge of the world is infinitely
better than village life back in Afghanistan. At least here there are
clinics and schools. At least here nobody’s trying to kill them all
the time. At least here there’s the possibility, however remote, of
ending up settled abroad or working in Karachi or Dubai. Back where
their families came from, there is not even that slim hope.

For more information or how to help, contact the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees (www.unhcr.ch),
which organizes and administers the camps, Save the Children (www.savethechildren.org),
which runs the educational programs, and Mercy Corps International (www.mercycorps.org),
which runs the health clinics.

Read this piece on the Guardian’s website.

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