Life at the Border

Escaping war, facing despair

Thousands of refugees flood Pakistan to find only hunger, desperation

SHAMSHATU, Pakistan – Montana mountaineer Greg Mortenson
winced at the sight: Refugee boys as young as 4, whose families
just fled Afghanistan, labor here in an open-air brick factory to

“Sometimes no food,” 9-year-old Arnan Gul said, his bare feet
swollen and caked with clay.

The struggle between terrorists and the United States is
claiming victims here, and the situation is worsening by the day.

Fearing a U.S. assault on Afghanistan, men, women and
children crossed the border into Pakistan this week – illegally,
through mountains, because officially the border is closed.

Here, southeast of the city of Peshawar, they grip hoes and
hack out clay to earn enough money to eat.

“This world is just not fair,” said Mortenson, who has been
setting up schools around northern Pakistan in an effort funded
largely by Colorado members of the Golden-based American Alpine
Club. “These aren’t the terrorists. These aren’t bad people.”

The potential for a huge refugee crisis is growing as tens of
thousands of Afghans ignore their own leaders’ reassurances and
try to escape into Pakistan.

Some are stopped. Some make it through.

Bearded men wearing turbans and brown shalwar kameez lead the
way, followed by women in burka gowns that cover their faces, the
custom here.

Some support Afghanistan’s Taliban government, which rejects
the U.S. demand to give up Osama bin Laden, blamed by President
Bush for the suicide terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Some don’t.

Mostly they’re just poor, suffering already from a drought,
clinging to their Muslim faith.

Sajjad Ali Shah, a Peshawar arms importer, said Afghan
friends told him some refugees who had brought their families to
Pakistan now were returning to Afghanistan with a desperate
money-making plan.

They will wait for U.S. aircraft to attack and then sell
metal from the bombs as scrap.

The situation, already brutal for many, could worsen. U.N.
officials say 1 million refugees could seek shelter in Pakistan if
the United States attacks.

The Taliban’s supreme ruler, Mullah Mohammed Omar, on
Wednesday tried to calm his country, where aid agencies say at
least half of the population of Kabul, the capital, has left.

“America has no reason, justification or evidence for
attacking,” his statement said, as reported by Cox News Service.
“Therefore, all those (Afghans) who have been displaced internally
or externally are instructed to return to their original place of

But refugees keep coming by the thousands.

That adds to tension in border lands where almost everybody
carries weapons and many resent the Pakistan government’s support
of a U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

Pakistan’s border is closed partly because of security
concerns raised by U.S. officials after the attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Pakistani officials on Wednesday refused to open up, saying
the country can’t handle more Afghan refugees than the 2 million
already here. But refugees who slip through anyway, such as those
who trekked over mountains south of the Khyber Pass, can stay.

Some, such as the Ullaha family, end up at this roadside
brick factory on a parched plain.

The Ullahas left their barren farm near Jalalabad because
of the “war situation,” said Shooker Ullaha, 40, the father. He
had heard radio reports about attacks on America, he said, and
then about the U.S. threat of military action against Afghanistan.

He hadn’t heard recent assurances from U.S. officials that
“there won’t be any kind of D-Day” and innocents won’t be hurt.
His voice rose in the heat.

“Afghanistan and America friends after Russia war,” he said.
“Please. I appeal to America: no attack.”

For 24 hours he led 10 family members through the mountains,
he said.

And Wednesday, their second day in Pakistan, he and his four
sons already were working – 4-year-old Uzammat pushed a scraper to
clear mud from the work area. Naqeeb, Nusherat and Amdad – all
under 8 – helped hack out clay from a berm. Men molding bricks set
them in rows on the ground to dry before hauling the bricks to a
kiln at the base of a smokestack.

They say the Pakistani owner pays them the equivalent of
$1.50 per 1,000 bricks – a day’s work for an adult.

“If the situation clears, I go back,” he said. “I can’t go
back to Afghanistan now because the situation is not clear.”

Mortenson listened silently.

He was thinking of his own two children back in Montana, he
said later, imagining them molding bricks to survive. Nearby in
the sprawling, mud-brick Shamshatu refugee camp, he has set up a
school for children – an open-air classroom with 12 teachers and
space for 420 students.

But nobody studied there Wednesday.

Pakistani police told Mortenson the Shamshatu camp was unsafe.

Traveling back and forth to northern Pakistan over the past
five years, Mortenson, 43, has set up 22 schools for children in
communities that supply porters for U.S. climbers in the Karakoram

“The need is everywhere,” he said. “The only way we can defeat
terrorism is if people in this country where terrorists exist
learn to respect and love Americans, and if we can respect and
love these people here.”

The border is jittery.

There are conflicts between those supporting Pakistan’s
government, which backs Bush’s demand for bin Laden, and Muslims
appalled at potential military action against other Muslims.

“Maybe civil war,” factory owner and trader Mohammad Arif said.

A towering painted portrait of bin Laden clutching machine
guns decorated the back of one truck. Some Pakistanis point out
bin Laden built roads and clinics in Afghanistan.

Tuesday in the Khyber Tribal Area, five men were pulled from
a car and shot in a feud.

Inside a mud-brick compound after the killings, 16 men sat
drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. They joked that they all are
cousins of Osama bin Laden.

Five more shots from a machine gun reverberated just over
the wall. In one way, people on the border, accustomed to
conflict, are not jittery: Nobody flinched.

Black-clad Pakistani police and soldiers patrol along roads
and at edges of Afghan neighborhoods in Peshawar.

Inside a fortified United Nations compound, bureaucrats
coordinate construction of new tent cities and water supplies for
up to 1 million refugees.

“Afghanistan is a human-rights and humanitarian catastrophe.
These are probably the hungriest and poorest people of the world,”
said Yusuf Hassan, spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for
refugees. “They are trapped.”

U.N. officials want the border opened. U.S. officials say
they haven’t taken a position.

“We’re concerned about the humanitarian crisis,” spokesman
Mark Wentworth said from the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan’s capital,
Islamabad. “We continue to provide assistance to refugees in
Pakistan. We continue to try to provide assistance to vulnerable
Afghans across the border.”

Out on the hot plain, Mortenson watched boys molding bricks
and wondered whether America’s campaign will succeed. Leaving
Afghanistan under threat of military attack for weeks “is causing
innocent people to panic,” he said.

Children languishing in refugee camps could become prey for
terrorist recruiters in the future, he said. “What’s the
difference between them becoming a productive local citizen or a
terrorist? I think the key is an education.”