Refugees are dying in camps near the Iranian border because vital aid is being blocked

Twelve-year-old Someiyeh and her three younger brothers are slowly succumbing to cold and hunger in a sandswept corner of south-west Afghanistan. They have one blanket, no shelter and no food. Hundreds of refugees around them are digging holes to escape the wind. A few miles away UN warehouses are bursting with supplies, but they lie across the border from Nimruz province, inside Iran, and the refugees cannot get there. They risk being shot by Iranian border guards if they try, while the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, has so far refused to cross the frontier to aid them. Before she lost the strength even to stand up, Someiyeh could have tried to make the one-day march from Zaranj, the provincial capital, to Makaki, the nearest refugee camp. But the journey would have been pointless. For weeks, Iran's Red Crescent Society, which runs the camp despite the fact it lies inside Afghanistan, has blocked foreign aid agencies from distributing supplies to newcomers. Someiyeh, from a Pashtun tribe in Kandahar some 400km to the east, explains in an eerily empty voice that her mother is dead and father far away. Her brothers, the eldest just 10, are foraging for food. The bazaar in Zaranj is well provided but the local Baluchi tribespeople say they have enough problems feeding themselves, let alone outsiders. With sandstorms by day and temperatures close to zero at night, Someiyeh appears destined to join the statistics of the dead. "Each day, five or six children are dying," says Dr Abdul Shakur, the head of what a noticeboard proclaims to be a hospital. But inside there is almost nothing but bare mud floors and a few metal beds. A skeletal four-year-old girl screams as a drip is inserted into her arm. There are eight doctors for 300,000 people in a province of 45,000 sq kms, with no paved roads and not a drop of rain for three years. "Nimruz has been forgotten," is a phrase repeated by more than one frustrated aid worker. Already in a desperate state after seven years of neglect and oppression under the Taliban regime, the plight of Nimruz worsened with the onset of the US-led military campaign in October. Some 20,000 refugees headed west towards Iran but found the border closed. The Taliban set up the Makaki camp, which filled with mostly fellow Pashtuns, while farther south General Abdul-Karim Barahui, the leader of the opposition Nimruz Liberation Front, established Mile 46, mostly for local Baluchis. Iran, eager to expand its influence in Nimruz, sent its Red Crescent Society to help both camps, which now hold some 12,000 people. The UNHCR has repeatedly demanded that Iran respect its international obligations and open its borders to refugees. Already host to more than 2m Afghan refugees from two decades of conflict, Iran refused. UN officials said Ruud Lubbers, the head of the UNHCR, took the principled position not to aid the camps, which the UN says are unsafe anyway. Even though the Taliban fled with barely a shot fired a month ago, the UN has also refused to allow any of its staff to enter Nimruz for security reasons, although Gen Barahui, the new governor, says he guarantees their safety. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has sent in limited amounts of supplies to be distributed by non-UN aid agencies such as Ockenden. But the WFP is badly hampered by Iranian bureaucracy and the UN travel ban. "We should have gone to the camps. Our warehouses are bursting while people are dying of hypothermia," commented one UN worker who asked not to be named. "I feel ashamed." On December 7 Médecins Sans Frontières, the most active non-Iranian aid agency in the camps, protested against the ban imposed by the Iranians on helping some 2,000 new arrivals. "In the desert, with no help, they cannot survive," MSF said, adding that Iranian forces had opened fire several times on refugees trying to cross the border. On Monday MSF was finally allowed to help newcomers in Mile 46 and yesterday received permission for Makaki. Bruno Jochum, the MSF representative in Tehran, said Iran explained its ban by saying the conflict in Afghanistan was over and that the refugees should go home. The UN will reconsider its travel ban on Nimruz this week. If lifted, it will then send an assessment mission. The UNHCR says refugees should be moved nearer Zaranj for security reasons. For Someiyeh and her brothers, already in Zaranj, it is likely to be too late. Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 1995-1998