To the Editors:
For almost two years Afghanistan has been in the headlines. Unfortunately, what is perhaps the most important aspect of the Afghanistan story in human terms is largely ignored. The public remains largely unaware of or indifferent to the plight of the Afghan refugees.
The scope of the refugee problem is enormous. It is the largest refugee community in the world. The government of Pakistan estimated this spring that there were over 2,000,000 refugees living in camps along the Afghan-Pakistani border, and the almost 200,000 more were arriving each month. Another half-million had fled across the Iranian border as of a year ago. Thus there may be between 2,500,000 and 3,000,000 refugees. Twenty percent of the entire Afghan people now lives in exile in tents.
The overwhelming majority of these refugees are women and children and the aged, since able-bodied men typically stay with the mujahiddin freedom fighters. Many of the refugees were wounded during the fighting that engulfed their villages.
The refugees live a harsh life in the camps, located in mountainous Northwest Frontier Province, and desert-like Baluchistan. The climate is harsh. There is a shortage of uncontaminated water and a constant threat of epidemics. Medical services are limited. The refugees have come to a poor and over-populated country that lacks the resources to support them adequately. The population of some border areas has been doubled by the refugee influx. There is almost no employment available for them. The problem will not go away. These people want to return to their homeland and have no interest in being permanently resettled elsewhere. It may be a long wait.
The need for medical assistance, food, and shelter is tremendous. Well-directed private contributions can go a long way in a region where the cost of living is low.
The Afghanistan Relief Committee is one organization that is trying to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees, primarily by providing medical assistance and funding carefully selected programs of traveling clinics and surgical hospitals. Unfortunately, our efforts have been hampered by the general lack of awareness of the scope of the problem. In order to generate public interest in our efforts, the Chicago chapter has published a unique and beautiful 1982 Afghanistan calendar. Designed by local Afghan and American artists, it has drawings of daily life, and the folk art and magnificent architecture of Afghanistan. It is available for a minimum $5 donation.
We do hope that the public will respond to the needs of the refugees. Otherwise it will seem to the rest of the world that Americans are only interested in Afghanistan for its strategic value, and care for the Afghans only when they fight against the Soviets. We must demonstrate that our concern is for the Afghans as human beings, and not merely as anti-Soviet pawns.
James K. Genden
Afghanistan Relief Committee
220 South State Street, Chicago, Ill. 60604