By Tamim Ansary
I remember a certain gray day in February of 2002, I was sitting in the San Francisco airport with five of my fellow Afghan-Americans, sipping tea and feeling nervous. The world was still reeling from the events of 9/11, and we six were headed to the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. For months, the media had been blasting out images of Afghans making their way down icy mountain roads in flight from terror and bloodshed, so a couple of Bay Area charities had spearheaded a drive to collect blankets and winter-wear for those folks—it was the only thing any of us could think to do. People in and around San Francisco had responded with generous donations. Three 40-foot containers had already been shipped to LIFE, an Islamic relief outfit in Peshawar, and we were going over there to see them distributed. We couldn’t get across the border into Afghanistan, the war was still on; the Battle of Shah-i-kot was raging not fifty miles from Peshawar, but at least we’d get the donations to the Afghan refugees we could reach, the ones in Pakistan.
I had left Afghanistan in 1964, and the others had left in the early 80’s, during the Soviet occupation. None of us had been back since. “Us” consisted of Hadi, an earnest young bureaucrat from Sacramento; Zemar, a big, blustering, braggadocio guy, full of jokes, whether the situation called for them or not; Shalah, a widowed woman about my age, who was humble and self-effacing but impressively unafraid when called upon; Emal, who was young and spry and smart, just out of college, trained in airport security administration, an observant Muslim, the kind who wore a little white skull cap all the time; and Mariam, in her late-thirties, a real-estate saleswoman, beautiful and aggressive in an Afghan new-woman way, always fashionably dressed (she brought a mountain of luggage, including one whole suitcase full of cosmetics and shampoos—“I’m a woman,” she explained; and another whole suitcase full of medicine—”My cousin is a doctor,” she explained). And there was me—aging, bookish textbook editor who had not strayed very far from his desk in years.
Before we left, I assumed that the local charity would be distributing the blankets and we’d bear witness and help if we could. I pictured something like serving turkey to the homeless at Thanksgiving. When we got to Peshawar, I discovered I was wrong. We would be doing the distributing and the local group would help. If they could. They knew their way around Pakistan’s byzantine bureaucracy, they knew which camps to visit, they had the cars and trucks to drive us there—but the actual distribution would be up to us.
That’s when the complexity of the job truly dawned on me. We had approximately 3000 items to give away at three camps. Each camp housed some 15,000 families, which translated to as many as 100,000 people apiece. What exactly was our plan? Just pull in and start handing out blankets to anyone who looked cold? Hmm. We might make a thousand people happy, but what about the 99,000 we’d disappoint?
Brother Rafiq, the director of LIFE, a soft-spoken sad-eyed man with the hard patience of a rock, shook his head. “You will use our method,” he told me gently. LIFE had developed a system, he said. We’d go to each camp a few days beforehand, seek out the leaders—the “elders”—and give them coupons for as many items as we had. They’d distribute the chits as they saw fit. When we came back, people with coupons would line up and we’d hand out blankets, coats, whatever. It was good to know someone had worked out a system.
The first camp we visited was called Old Shamshatoo. It wasn’t what I expected. To me, “refugee camp” meant “temporary refuge.” When I heard the word, I pictured tents. Old Shamshatoo was 23 years old and looked pretty much like a cramped but endless Afghan village. High mud walls enclosed tiny compounds. A maze of narrow alleys ran between the walls. Playing in those alleys were children too numerous to count. Apparently, when the refugees first arrived, the U.N. gave each family a tent. They immediately dug up the ground beneath their feet, made mud, and built a wall around their tent, then sold the tent.
Old Shamshatoo had its own pitiful bazaar and two schools, one for boys and one for girls. We were to meet the elders in the “hospital” at the center of the camp. The hospital turned out to be a dark, single-story building with many dank and mostly empty rooms. I saw a few bed, a bottles of pills on a shelf, and a cabinet containing what looked like tongs, pliers, and saws.
“Do you have any medical equipment?” I asked a young man hovering nearby.
“We do.” He pointed to a yard behind the building. A half-dozen amputees were out there, sitting in wheelchairs, enjoying the fresh air and the sunshine. The wheelchairs were the medical equipment.
The elders sat around a big table in a sort of conference room, a dozen graybeard heavyweights, each one laden with enough gravitas to make the floorboards creak. When they spoke, they prefaced even their most ordinary comments with the words bismillahi-i-rahman-i-rahim—“In the name of God, the beneficent and merciful.” The elders told us this camp had 23 mosques, each with a prayer leader, an imam, elected by that congregation. “In the name of God the beneficent and merciful, the imams will distribute the coupons. In the name of God the beneficent and merciful, they are closest to the people. In the name of God the beneficent and merciful they know who is truly needy.”
After we left, I learned that this camp was controlled by Hizbi Islam, the “Islamic Party”, one of the many Mujahedeen armies that had torn Afghanistan apart in the early nineties. Its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was possibly the most ruthless savage of that bunch. The graybeards who had met with us were members of Hekmatyar’s executive council.
When we came back to do the distribution, camp officials led us into a large empty yard. It had two doors, one in the eastern wall, one across from it in the western wall. As we were parking, a man came up and identified himself as head of security. He had been promised 60 blankets for himself and his men. Could he get his take first? Well, all right. Then came one of the graybeards, full of explanation and apology. “I take full responsibility,” he said. “Full responsibility, but you see…we allotted 80 coupons for our teachers and by accident—I take full responsibility—the morning crew was dismissed early and the afternoon crew has not yet arrived. I have their coupons though. I’ll see that they get their share.”
Within minutes of arriving, we had given out 140 of our thousand items to just two men. Then the official distribution started. Refugees were let in one at a time. They came in through the eastern door, filed past our truck, got an item, and left the yard by the door in the western wall. Men with sticks ranged along the line. Anyone who tarried got whacked, and as the afternoon passed and people got more unruly, more and more of them took beatings.
The people who really needed these blankets and coats were in the mountains of Afghanistan, where we couldn’t go. Here in the Punjab Valley, it was almost too warm: February felt like summer. I asked a camp factotum why people were willing to risk a beating to get something they plainly didn’t need.
“These are people who have nothing,” he explained. “If they can get a blanket or a coat, they at least have one thing of their very own.”
The Second Camp
Our next stop was “New Shamshatoo,” which was further from the city and only a couple of years old. Here, one could still see tents poking up above some of the walls. The people looked hungrier and needier. The so-called “elders” of New Shamshatoo were middle-aged or younger. They met with us in a tent—a nice tent, but a tent. Here, there was no sense of hidden, menacing gangster control. What we felt instead were currents of tension among the “elders”. They led different groups, and a hierarchy had not been established. Rivalries percolated close to the surface.
I had not seen any bazaar in this camp. Where did people get their food, I asked one of the “elders”.
“The United Nations sends a truck,” he said. “Once a week, they bring us flour, oil, and mung beans.”
“Is that all? What about fruit?”
He chuckled at my naiveté. “Brother,” he said, “Here we spend our days longing just for salt! And you speak of fruit!”
Due to some bureaucratic snafus, we started our distribution at New Shamshatoo in late afternoon—a mistake. The yard at New Shamshatoo had one big green, metal gate that swung open to admit our truck. Then the gate was closed and bolted with a long iron bar. Set into that large gate was a smaller door, and it was through that panel that people were admitted. But the yard had no second door. People had to get out the same way they got in.
Zemar and I were handling the distribution this time. We had planned to take turns, but once we started, the situation turned hectic so quickly, we couldn’t pause to change personnel. The refugees were jostling one another other in line. Some were breaking out and coming in from the side, trying to snatch blankets out of turn. We had to give the coats and blankets out fast to keep pace with their desperation. Zemar was roaring his usual jests and jokes with gusty, hearty camaraderie, addressing the refugees as if they were all his relatives–“Uncle– here’s your blanket–go! Step up, Auntie Dear, step up, don’t be shy! And you—little one! Here you are. This’ll keep you warm, go like a rocket now, out that door with you, be a jet, a jumbo jet!”
On the face of it, he was just having a roaringly good time. Actually, he had no choice but to boom out cheer. He had to stay ahead of the energy of the crowd in order to retain any measure of control.
It was my job to grab blankets off the pile and hand them to Zemar, so he would never have to break his interaction with the crowd. The work was hard and fast and intense. The sweat was pouring off me. And slowly the system started breaking down. Some of the people who got into the yard did not leave. Slowly, that enclosure started to fill up. Some people were getting back into line after receiving their item. There were no men with sticks to keep order. Outside, I could hear the confused hubbub of a growing throng. The metal gate creaked as they strained against it. The iron bar seemed about to break. Every time the little door was opened to let in another cluster of recipients, the people inside had to push with all their might to get the door closed and locked again.
The Pakistani authorities had sent five military men with carbines along to protect us. Mostly those guys just lounged at the back of the yard, drinking tea and chatting with one another. Occasionally, however, one or two of them would help get the door shut. Once, a woman’s hand got caught in the door, and she screamed as they tried to shut it. One of the Pakistani soldiers started beating her to make her withdraw her arm—which she couldn’t do because it was squeezed in the door. Thereupon, one of the refugee men got furious: a Pakistani man beating an Afghan woman? This would not stand! The Afghan fellow began to swear and curse. A fight seemed about to start. I don’t know if it did or didn’t. I was too busy picking up a blanket, handing it to Zemar, picking up a blanket, handing it to Zemar. The first camp had felt creepily controlled; this camp felt creepily out of control. I wasn’t sure which was worse.
Darkness fell, and by then the refugees seemed to be everywhere: hands and arms snatching and grabbing from every side. Hadi pulled at my sleeve. “We have to go,” he said, “It’s turning into a bad scene. We have to go right now.”
But how? The moment we stopped distributing, all hell would erupt. The line of people waiting to get at least one thing of their very own was longer than ever. And what about the multitude outside the gate? How were we going to handle them?
Then Shalah called to the Pakistani army officers. “You men! Hey! We saved the last forty blankets for you. Get over here and protect your property.” At that, the soldiers drove the crowd back and secured the truck. We piled into our car and yelled at the driver to go—just as a rock came over the wall and clanged on the metal roof. The gate was opened, and the crowd poured in, but we drove slowly out through the rushing shadowy mass.
Once we were safely on the highway to Peshawar, Hadi told us that other relief organizations made a point of getting out of the camps by 5 p.m. No one distributed at night: no one. And most only got about half their goods distributed before order broke down. We had worked till 7 and come close to emptying our truck. How proud we felt at that moment! Zemar crowed that we weren’t just Afghans. “We’re Fremont Afghans!” (Fremont is a Bay Area suburb and was at that time home to the largest Afghan community outside Asia.)
Our last camp was called Shalman. It was the newest of them all and the closest to the border. From there, I was told, one could see Afghan soil. On the road to Shalman, just a few miles out of Peshawar, we came to a sign that read: “Restricted Area. No foreigners allowed without government permission.” Apparently we had permission—Rafiq had arranged it.
We entered the Khyber Pass on a twisting road that snaked through a broad canyon. From the edge of that road one could see hundreds of feet down to the canyon floor and hundreds of feet up to jagged peaks; and beyond them to higher peaks; and beyond those to even taller mountains covered with snow. And beyond those to dark blue shadows that looked like clouds at first; but looking closer, one realized those were not clouds at all, but the Hindu Kush Mountains, a spur of the Himalayas themselves.
And on every promontory along the way was a mud fortress, for this was “tribal area”.
We left the Khyber Pass at last, turning onto another skinny road that went winding down, down, down, down at last to a blistering desert floor.
And there, a stone’s throw from the Afghan border, we saw the sight I had pictured from the start. Tents covered the landscape as far as the eye could see. We drove through miles of them to get to camp headquarters. The others went inside to explain our mission to the Pakistani commander. Mariam, the only woman in our group this day, stayed in the car. Earlier, she’d felt threatened by crude attention from some men on the road, and now she didn’t want to get out. I stayed with her, because I knew she wanted that feeling of male protection, ineffectual though I would have been had any serious trouble broken out.
The refugees were curious about us. We could see them coming from all sides, moving slowly like sleepwalkers. Their clothes were ragged, their faces sallow. They moved slowly because it was a hot day, but also because they were malnourished, and perhaps in some cases ill. Mariam said, “They’re so broken. They’re so broken.” She hugged herself, tormented by what she was seeing. “These are my people and I can’t hold them. I just want to hold them.”
A couple of boys were standing near our car. They might have been ten or eleven. They had their arms around each other’s shoulders. They were pals.
One wore a black T-shirt from some American sports team. I rolled the window down to say hello to him. He asked where we were from and I said, “Kabul.”
“Then we’re countrymen!” he beamed. He was from the Shomali plains, he told me, just north of Kabul.
“Why did you come here?” I asked him. “Was it the bombing?”
“The war,” he shrugged. “Just the war. All the fighting. My mother and father were both killed. My uncle brought me here.” He said it so casually. We locked eyes for a moment, though, and his gaze was full of grief. Then he said, “What did you bring us? Did you bring notebooks and pencils?”
I thought the question odd, under the circumstances. I was sort of ashamed to tell him what we were going to bring. It was seriously hot here; it looked like this place was always hot. The driver had told me earlier, “Two months from now, you won’t be able to stand outside in this sun for two minutes.” I could not imagine what these people would be enduring then, without so much as a rock or a tree for shade, and no river or stream or even pond to dip in. I was sort of ashamed to tell him that we had come to deliver blankets and coats to keep them warm.
So I evaded his question. “Why do you ask about notebooks? Do you have a school here?”
“We have one,” he said, “but I don’t go now. I’m not well.”
“I’m so sorry. What ails you?”
“I have malaria.”
I realized then that the glitter in his eyes was fever. He was standing in the sun and burning up with fever. It hit me that this boy might not make it.
“I wish I could hold them,” I heard Mariam still saying behind me.
I missed the distribution at this camp for some reason that I no longer remember, but the others told me it went perfectly for once. Shalman was raw and new but well organized. Every blanket got into the hands of a refugee who had nothing until he or she got that one thing. And Zemar, I was told, carried on in his usual way, rolling some of the youngsters in the blankets he was giving them, tickling them, cracking friendly jokes.
“He brought them more than blankets,” Mariam said. “He made those children laugh.”
Tamim Ansary wrote West of Kabul, East of New York, a memoir about growing up bicultural, straddling the fault line between Afghanistan and America. He is also the author of Road Trips, his story of becoming an American in the late ’60s by joining the millions of dropouts who were calling themselves “freaks”.