Warlords arm Afghans in refugee camps
The Washington Times
January 24, 2002
By Andrew Bushell
Mazar-E-Sharif, Afghanistan -- Warlords in several Afghan cities have begun arming refugee camps since the arrival of international peacekeepers in Kabul, international aid agencies say. Top Stories Their goal is to maintain the power vacuum caused by the fall of the Taliban and maintain profits from drug sales and smuggling, according to officials of the interim government in Kabul.
U.N. security officials believe the warlords aim to check the influence of the Kabul government headed by Hamid Karzai. The officials say the warlords would see deployment of the peacekeepers in any other cities as an extension of Kabul's power. At present, the international force operates only in Kabul and surrounding areas.
Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Northern Alliance commander, began the trend of arming refugees in the areas surrounding the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, according to Haneef Ata of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a private organization helping refugees around the world.
The practice quickly spread to other cities throughout Afghanistan.
Often the gift of a rifle and a few pounds of grain is enough to ensure loyalty from a dispossessed farmer. The vast majority of camps surrounding cities house people who have been driven from their homes by the recent war and by feuding between warlords eager to consolidate power.
The United Nations estimates there could be as many as 1.5 million such people in Afghanistan.
A U.N. security officer working in the southeastern city of Jalalabad, who asked not to be identified, said the camps contain large numbers of young men who are prime candidates to become foot soldiers in armies such as the one Gen. Dostum is building in the north.
In Mazar-e-Sharif, boys from 13 to 17 years old have been observed transporting Kalashnikov rifles wrapped in carpets that people in the camps are too poor to buy.
The most prominent example is the Sakhi camp outside Mazar-e-Sharif. It is one of 25 camps surrounding the city formed seven months ago by IRC.
Things were peaceful in Sakhi, according to Mr. Ata, until Gen. Dostum began to arm displaced Uzbeks in the 15,000-person camp.
Other warlords quickly followed suit. With three factions competing for power in Mazar-e-Sharif, the nights now are punctuated with the sound of small-arms fire as groups battle each other over territory.
Competition among Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks has forced other minorities out of the camp and created a siege mentality evident in conversations with locals. One relief worker in Sakhi, who declined to be identified, said, "In a way, we are kept hostage by the refugees. If we leave, thousands of innocents die, and if we stay, we support a situation which invites abuse by the violent." At least 40 women are believed to have been raped in the past three months in the camp, according to local physicians. Because of the social stigma involved in reporting abuse, the actual figure could be many times higher.
IRC aid workers in Sakhi say they were threatened when they attempted to intervene.
One of the women, Iruma, said she was raped by 10 armed men who accosted her when she went out for grain one day. She was in a hospital for more than eight days after being brutally sodomized for more than 13 hours.
At least two female aid workers said they were threatened by men armed by Gen. Dostum.
Mazar-e-Sharif is divided among three competing warlords whose rivalry dates from the early 1990s: Gen. Dostum, who represents the Uzbeks; Commander Mohaqaq, representing the Hazara tribes; and Commander Uftad Ata, who represents the Tajiks and supports the faction led by former President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Foreign-aid workers interviewed in the area say similar problems are taking place elsewhere around the country.
U.S. Special Forces, with the cooperation of Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha, confiscated about 2,000 weapons from warlords in southern Helmand province yesterday, the Associated Press reported.
In Islamabad, Pakistan, a spokeswoman for U.N. agencies working in Afghanistan was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying lawlessness was hampering relief work in the country. The U.N. World Food Program said this week that gunmen had stolen 40 tons of food aid intended for people in drought-hit areas in northern Afghanistan.
Because the agreement establishing the interim administration for Afghanistan contains no provisions for the deployment of peacekeepers beyond 4,500 troops in Kabul, the projection of federal power has been left to be negotiated with warlords controlling the other cities.
Two attempts to exert central authority from Kabul in the past month have met with disaster. In violation of a request from the interim government and the United States, Mr. Agha released seven senior Taliban ministers in early January. In Mazar-e-Sharif, Gen. Dostum continues to run printing presses issuing counterfeit money despite government protests. No fewer than 20 local administrations in Afghanistan bicker over land and the right to tax commerce.
Gen. Ghulam Nassery, Afghan minister in charge of peacekeeping, said that unless the camps are disarmed, Afghanistan could devolve once again into civil war. He said that in addition to the financial aid promised by Western nations, his country needs the right kind of people to secure the streets. "I am ashamed to say, we need men who are not Afghans. We need the blue helmets; we need more than a hundred thousand of them," he said.