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[an error occurred while processing this directive] The Children of Shamshatoo
The Children of Shamshatoo
Hasan Ferdous

The road to Shamshatoo

From a distance all I could see was a cloud of dust. Thick, yellow and very dry, but beyond the dust lay a whole city, almost entirely made of mud. Dotting a vast arid area were several dozens of tiny mud houses, connected by a bumpy unpaved road.

It seemed almost pre-historic, carved out of a deserted landscape, that could have been the perfect prop for a Steven Spielberg movie. Except that it was no prop and it was not pre-historic. It was Shamshatoo, a camp site set up outside Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's rugged North West Frontier Province, for newly arrived Afghan refugees.

UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has set up four separate camps, now collectively called Shamshatoo, that provide shelter and basic services to some 50,000 Afghan refugees. Most of the people who have found shelter here are newly arrived: some as early as a year ago, some as recently as a few weeks. Several of them have been shifted from the much larger Jallozai refugee camp, also on the outskirts of Peshawar. Overall, some three and a half million Afghans have sought refuge - about two million of them in Pakistan and the remaining 1.5 million in Iran. Afghan refugees have also found shelter in several other countries neighbouring Afghanistan.

We visited Shamshatoo on 12 November 2001, our destination being the last of the four camps.

Everyone here has a story to tell and a tragedy to share. Once the individual details are sorted out, they all sound the same. Running away from a brutal war and an oppressive regime, they are here to seek shelter, food and hope. And this hope, at least for those in Shamshatoo, has come in the form of an opportunity for both Afghan boys and girls to go to school.

Abdul Haq, a father of five children (one boy and four girls) came to Pakistan about a year ago from war ravaged Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. He first found shelter in Jallozai; only three weeks ago he was transferred to Shamshatoo. He was a taxi driver and his wife a school teacher. After the Taliban seized control of Mazar, girls were prevented from going to school. His wife lost her job and he lost one eye in a mine explosion. He would have persevered longer in his home town. He knew quite well how perilous a refugee's life was. But after several girls were abducted and the law and order situation broke down, he decided it was time to get out of harm's way.

"My biggest fear was for my girls. I had to take them somewhere where they would be safe, even if it meant running away from home," Haq said.

For him and for several hundred newly arrived Afghan refugees, home at Shamshatoo is limited to a tent that often has no plastic sheet to shield it from the bitter cold and no hard cover on the floor either. Water is scarce here: a water van arrives two times a day to deliver "water rations." You have to walk several blocks outside the camp to go and collect your weekly "food ration" provided by the United Nations. There is no doctor inside the camp. There is no electricity either. When darkness falls over the valley, only stars are here to gaze at. It is pitch dark and you have to listen to your heartbeat to believe life is still flowing.

"But I can go to school," quipped 11-year old Asma when asked if she missed home.

The school at Shamshatoo

Less than a week ago, it was only a tent. Afghan children, desperate to cling to the tiniest bit of hope, would still come. They would leave their tattered sandals at the entrance, sit on the cold mat and listen attentively to every word of the "mualim," the teacher. Now, a blue and white billboard stands outside a one-story building, still smelling of the fresh white paint, proudly proclaiming,
"Baihaque Primary School for Girls."

"This is our new school," says 9-year old Mumtaz, acting as our local guide. Her eyes light up as we step inside a classroom.

Inside, about 30 girls, aged between 8 and 15, sit on a mat, with text books, notebooks and pencils in hand. Two or three girls keep their veils on; others wearing old but clean dresses look straight into our eyes and welcome us with the traditional "salaam." I felt there was an ocean between the squalor of the refugee tents we just visited and this classroom.

Most of the girls are reluctant to talk about the past. Too much bitterness, too much disappointment. They would rather talk about the future. The past has been so bleak that the future for them can only be better. All of them, without exception, seemed to be happy. For three hours at school, they can forget about the dirt, the hunger and the darkness at their tents and dream about a better tomorrow.

"I want to be a doctor when I grow up," says a little girl, too bashful to repeat her name. A girl, half inch taller, says she wants to be a teacher. A third one, perhaps the oldest among them, says she wants to be a nurse.

It is not difficult to understand why most girls have their aim set on these three professions. Under the Taliban regime, girls were barred from going to school. Tahira, who comes from the eastern city of Jalalabad, said it was the blackest day in her life when she learned she could no longer go to school. "I felt I was inferior even to animals. Dogs and cats can go out and run around free. I could go nowhere. I felt I was a burden to my family."

"If I could, I would open schools for girls everywhere in Afghanistan. I would teach girls everything I would learn," Tahira says, her eyes shinning with hope.

Of course, Afghanistan needs more teachers. It has one of the worst literacy rates in the world. Only about 32 per cent of boys and 8 per cent of girls participate in some form of primary education. Under the Taliban regime, education was low on the priority list. Drop out rates soared, attendance declined and actual completion was rather insignificant.

Afghanistan also needs doctors - lots and lots of them. It has one of the highest under-five mortality rates in the world - about 257 per 1,000 live births, or one of every four Afghan children. One-fifth of all newborns suffer from low birth weight - less than 2.5 kilograms. One of every two Afghan children is malnourished and about half of all children are stunted in height.

And those who survive must deal with another deadly menace, landmines. With over 732 million square metres of the country contaminated by mines, Afghanistan is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world. An additional 100 million square metres of land are contaminated in the north of the country due to fighting along the front lines. Before the beginning of the US-led air strikes in Afghanistan, between 40 and 100 people were injured there every week by landmines. In the recent air strikes on Afghanistan, a large number of new explosive devices were used, some of which remain unexploded on the ground. Some children who walked into minefields to collect air dropped food have either been injured or killed.

One of the girls in the class informs us her father was seriously injured by a landmine explosion. He was on his way to the market to buy bread when this happened. "I think we are very lucky. He just lost his left leg. He now has an artificial leg and can walk."

"You call yourself lucky?" I ask her, surprised.

"Just imagine what would have happened if he was killed or perhaps blinded. What would have happened to us? We would still be sitting in Kunduz and suffering."

There is another reason why most of the kids in the refugee camp feel lucky. They have some warm clothes. In Afghanistan, where winter is bitter, up to 1.4 million people are estimated to be internally displaced. Many lack adequate shelter. On top of that, there is the spectre of famine looming large. There have been three consecutive droughts and failed harvests. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the food Afghanistan was able to produce in 2001 was barely enough for half the year in aggregate. Unless the country receives massive food aid and this is distributed among the needy soon, over 100,000 Afghan children risk increased suffering, hunger and perhaps death.

At Shamshatoo, Afghan children may not be well fed but they are not starving. Maybe that's why they can begin dreaming about better days.

I tell the girls the United Nations is working to bring peace in Afghanistan. If it succeeds, they all can go home.
"Are you looking forward to returning home?" I ask.

An unusual silence descends. The girls look at each other's face, their eyes clouded with fear and suspicion. I repeat my question. Rafia, the oldest girl in the group, bites her nail, scratches her nose and takes a deep breath. Very slowly, as if counting every word, she says, "We are happy here. I don't know if I can go to school in my village in Bamyan."

I could see behind the measured answer of the 15-year old there were charred memories, full of nightmares and deep wounds. Every single day of their young lives has been spent amidst war: one after another. Cities and villages have switched hands; new rulers have seized power. But Afghanistan's nightmares have not ended. Now the children don't want to believe anyone any more.

Pencils, pencils

Finally it is time for us to part. We say good bye once, we say good-by twice and the girls still stand at the school door, saying good-bye for the umpteenth time. Our jeep starts rolling, blowing dust all over the village of Shamshatoo.

Three minutes later, as the jeep swings past a local shop, two little boys wave from roadside and say something aloud. "What are they saying?" I ask Ariana, our guide and interpreter.

"They are asking for pencils," she explains.

We dip into our pockets and bring out three rickety pencils. Soon more kids gather, everyone with the same request.

"Pencils, do you have pencils?"

We had none left. I have never felt so helpless, so small before.

Hasan Ferdous is an Information Officer of the UN Department of Public Information. Recently he spent two months in Pakistan, working for the Office of the UN Co-ordinator for Afghanistan

Afghan children: A fact-sheet
Infant mortality rate 165 per 1,000 live births
Maternal mortality rate 1,700 per 100,000 live births (or one every 30 minutes)
Probability of dying between
birth and 5 years
257 per 1,000 (or one of every four Afghan children)
Availability of medical
One physician for every 50,000 people
Opportunity for primary education About 32 per cent of boys and 8 per cent of girls
Exposure to violence 97 per cent of children under 16 have witnessed violence and 65 per cent have experienced the death of a close relative

Source: UNICEF and WHO