(Reproduced from "Christian Aid news" Winter 2002 Issue 15, page 6 )

Christian Aid has been liaising with Ockenden International to provide assistance in refugee camps close to the Iranian-Afghan border. Christian Aid's news editor John Davison visited Makhakhi refugee camp there at the height of the conflict.

The first thing that struck me was the dust. Picked up from the barren landscape by the slightest breath of wind, it penetrated every garment fold or pocket - every facial crevice. When the wind blew with any strength, the swirling stuff had children crying and rubbing their eyes with gritty discomfort.

Goggles, held on with string tied over their scarves or turbans, were sported as protection by some of the young men, only adding to the weird feeling that you were in some truly alien environment. The 1,000 or so tents, in their neat rows, had been a brilliant white when they were erected by Red Crescent volunteers just over two weeks earlier but now had turned the same dull, dun colour as everything else.

New arrivals on the the Iranian border, who arrived daily on the back of hired trucks or trailers pulled by tractors, no longer received tents to shelter them. With more than 5,000 people in it, the camp had been declared officially full. Hundreds of bemused newcomers were left to put up whatever they could against the stinging wind.

I saw a woman trying to weave a wind break from twigs and sparse branches. A man had used a borrowed bicycle, a long handled shovel and a blanket to give his wife and two young sons some kind of protection. Others just huddled on the ground, behind the bundles of their few remaining possessions.

Everyone I spoke at the camp said they had come to escape the bombing. Many had stories of relatives being killed. One man, from Herat in western Afgahnistan, loudly claimed to have seen "more than 1,000 people" killed by bombs.

While such wild allegations inevitably prompt scepticism, many other stores told had the tragic ring of truth about them. Like that of Abdullah and Zaileikha Noorzahai, who were shltering in a tiny, derelict farm building on the outskirts of Makhakhi camp. Zaileikha had been ill for some time, with what the couple thought was heart trouble. So when the bombs started falling near their village close to Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, they fled with their four children - first to Herat.

"When we got there we just left the kids in some ruins while we went to try and find a doctor", said Abdullah. "When we came back we found the wall had collapsed because of bombing there, and the children were under the rubble."

His wife, clearly in distress with grief and pain from her illness, winced and wept openly when talking about their plight. "We are two people left on our own. We don't have any relatives left. Everybody has been killed", she said. Both are in their late 40s. "We are two old people who have saved our lives to try and find a life here. But we haven't been given any facilities," she said. In twelve days since they had reached Makhakhi, she said, they had been given little food and no medical attention, despite trying to see a doctor every day. "We cannot even get a single tablet,"she said.

"I'm afraid she might die. No one is looking after her," said Abdullah.

Then there was Fatima, from Kandahar, who I found sitting on the bare ground, surrounded by her six grandchildren. Both her sons, the children's fathers, had been killed in the bombing, together with their wives. "My house is isolated, on the edge of the city, and the children were sleeping with me, My sons' houses were close to one another and were hit by the bombardment on the same night, at about midnight two weeks ago. All were killed instantly," said Fatima, with a strange, detached calm.

"I saw 25 dead bodies that very night," she said. "Another 20 people were seriously injured and taken to hospital in Pakistan. We dare not hope they will be alive today."

I asked her about her hopes for the future of Afghanistan, and she just shrugged. "At present my main problem is that I should get something to cover myself and the children from the cold," she said. "And something shout be given to my children to eat. We don't get anything".