Displaced Afghans are facing a grim future, caught between the Taliban's determination to secure control of northern parts of Afghanistan and neighboring Tajikistan's reluctance to offer sanctuary to those seeking to escape the fighting.
According to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 10,000 displaced Afghans are living in makeshift camps located on islands in, and along the banks of the Pyanzh River, which divides Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Relief workers report that the displaced are suffering from cold conditions and a lack of adequate food supplies. In addition, since many camps are situated close to the frontline, many displaced Afghans are exposed to artillery fire. Abdul Haq Amiri, Humanitarian Affairs Officer of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Tajikistan (UNOCHA), said some displaced persons have been killed by the shelling.
Aid workers have expressed reluctance to operate in the camps, saying the ongoing fighting makes conditions too dangerous. There are tens of thousands more displaced Afghans scattered around northern regions of the country.
The fighting between the Taliban, which already controls over 90 percent of Afghanistan, and the Northern Alliance, led by Ahmad Shah Masood, appears set to intensify. According to a January 18 report by the Tajik news agency Asia-Plus, Taliban forces are preparing for a fresh offensive in the northern Takhar Province, which borders Tajikistan. The primary initial objective appears to be the airfield at Khojah Ghar.
On January 22, UNHCR officials repeated an appeal to the Tajik government to accept the most vulnerable displaced Afghans, mainly those in the Pyanzh River camps. A UNHCR press release said the displaced faced a "hopeless situation," and urged Tajikistan to "meet its international legal commitments," according to the Interfax news agency.
Tajik officials have been reluctant to admit Afghans, citing security concerns. In early January, Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov explicitly refused to offer the Afghans a safe haven, alleging that among the displaced population in question there were several hundred armed belligerents.
Some local observers say Tajikistan's own civil-war ravaged infrastructure is unable to accommodate such a large number of newcomers. The ongoing economic crisis has been exacerbated by a severe drought, which has destroyed up to 70 percent of cereal crops in southern regions of the country. According to some reports, the World Food Program is working to aid about 288,000 inhabitants of Tajikistan's Khatlon region.
Meanwhile, the Dushanbe-based military representative of the Burhanuddin Rabbani's Afghan government in exile, Muhammad Soleh Registoni, also opposes the potential acceptance of Afghan refugees by Tajikistan. Registoni argued that conditions for displaced Afghans would be even more severe in Tajikistan than in their homeland. In addition, Registoni expressed concern that Tajikistan could be overwhelmed by a refugee wave, endangering that fragile peace that has held in the country since 1997. More than 100,000 displaced Afghans having fled the fighting in Baghlan, Ishkamish and Talukan, and have concentrated in Takhor and Badakhshan provinces bordering upon Tajikistan, according to Registoni.
The military representative said most displaced Afghans would prefer not to go to Tajikistan. "Afghans request that international organizations just provide support to the refugees to pass through winter," he said.
Since November 30, UNHCR representatives have distributed more than 18 tons of flour, along with blankets, clothes and other necessities, to approximately 2,000 displaced families. Iran has also provided food and other supplies, including a January 11 shipment of about 40 tons of humanitarian aid. Iranian officials have appealed to international organizations on behalf of the displaced Afghans for emergency aid.
Ilhom Narziyev is a Tajik journalist and correspondent for the Asia-Plus news agency. He specializes in issues related to the Afghan conflict.
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