Published on 4 Mar 2013

Inside Afghanistan’s ‘appalling’ refugee camps

It has come to this. A woman sits in the mud and puddles. The snow falls relentlessly. It is minus 6 degrees, even at 11 in the morning. But sit here she must.

If she moves suddenly, she will be hit, for she sits in the middle of the road and covered head to foot in the blue burkha. Her vision is restricted ahead and her peripheral vision is non-existent. And she’s in the middle of one of the busiest streets in probably the most traffic-choked capital on earth.

This is Kabul’s not-so-secret shame – women forced to do this in the hope that a hand might come from the window of one of the city’s legion of 4x4s and bestow a few precious Afghanis to keep her and her children alive for another day.

That is, if you can call this life, or living.

After all the billions poured into the country in foreign aid during the west’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, even in the capital the conditions in the fifty or more mostly illegal refugee camps have to be seen to be believed.

One of those begging women, Sakineh, agrees to take our cameraman Mehran Bozorgnia back to the Nasajiu refugee camp to show how things are for the poorest of the city’s poor.

There are scores of camps like these. At least 50,000 refugees across Kabul. Some have come back from the 2.6 million Afghans who fled the Taliban to the vast camps of Pakistan and Iran, many others have been displaced by the fighting which has continued ever since the west ousted those same Taliban fighters.

And they are desperate places at this time of year – or any other. Running water or sewerage would be a dream here. The stench of human waste mixes with the toxic fumes of plastic being burned – though aid organisations deliver some firewood, it is pitiful and nowhere near what is needed for people here.

A man shows Channel 4 News terrible scars on his back. He thought if he sold a kidney he would get enough money to escape here and never have to come back. That was several years ago now and he stands angry and despairing in the freezing muddy slime of this place.

Next door, a girl of perhaps 10 or 11 years old slowly peels back the dressing to reveal her entire hand burned by an accident with one of the open fires burning all over this place to try and keep people alive.

Agha Mohammad is livid.

“Come,” he says, beckoning.

“Look at this – human beings have to live here. Look at it. You can make your own judgement. You don’t need any words from me.”

The floor is awash with the slime of liquidising mud in the freezing cold. During the night the weight of snow collapsed the flimsy tarpaulin roof over this place. The children are ill with the toxic plastic fumes everywhere here and like everyone else, any fees for private medical treatment or even medicine itself – are way out of reach.

“See my leg – it was hit by a bullet,” adds Agha.

“My hand was hit by shrapnel. I’ve served this country for thirty years!”

He’s near to tears.

The UNHCR supplies the basics of shelter, some firewood and clothing for the children. But it cannot supply what’s needed – an economy, a functioning state and above all, jobs. Hanging over all of this the great spoken and unspoken question on everyone’s mind in this country. As the west retreats from its long-lost war here, just what happens to the have-nots who need the most help?

Once Nato has gone will the fear of intensified civil war become reality? And if it does, the western charities and the United Nations will not be here as they are now – and even now the UN sums up conditions in the camps in one word: “Appalling.”

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17 reader comments

  1. John Clements says:

    Ah but, tell them not to worry, Western democracy is just round the corner. When we have news channels running 24/7, why is it these types of stories are never covered by them. Keep up the good fight, Alex.

  2. Lucia says:

    Great report, absolute shocked with the state of Afghan population. Thank you for sharing the reality.

  3. Janine says:

    Just watched this and feel completely disillusioned and heartbroken that afghanis are living in such appalling conditions. How can agencies say they are providing blankets and stoves when the very structure of their homes are comparable to mud baths. They are dying from the inside out. What hope can you wake up to each day for yourself and your children when this is what you have to endure.

  4. Winks25 says:

    Just watched your piece on this and it’s really heartbreaking to see Afghans and their children living in such appalling conditions. Absolute despair. All those trillions spent on the war and this is what has happened to these most venerable people. Thank you for exposing this I just hope those with influence will be watching and urged to take action and hold those abusing their positions of power in Afghanistan to account.

  5. John Rowlands says:

    Did Alex Thomson say on the news tonight: ‘Running water and sewage only the stuff of dreams’ or something similar?
    Why would the poor Afghanis in the refugee camp ‘dream’ of ‘sewage?’ Didn’t Alex mean ‘sewerage treatment’ or a ‘sewerage system’ are the stuff of dreams?’

  6. martin says:

    Thank you channel 4 news for reporting the plight of these desperate people in need of immediate help. Aren’t there any charities working directly with in these refugee camps? You could have said,,how people could help if they wanted to? We all know the corrupt Afghan government is not going to help them, Where is the UN? What are the western forces in Afghanistan doing about it?

  7. Ian M Tittenbrun says:

    I was there 1.5 ago Kabul & Bagram with US forces .where i met few lokals outside of the wire.the usual greething tae at morning small talk you know but they all hotly desire one thing..get me outa here–my people stupid–do not respect any life–please help they said –very–very sad for them and help no going to happen!!

  8. Ian M Tittenbrun says:

    and one more when West going to liv all the camps it my turn to dead camp becuse all the real protection will go with the Army and Taliban will have easy job to pay visits to those unfortunate people,and we all know what happeed latter.

  9. Roger Cottrell says:

    When Afghanistan was first invaded, Donald Rumsfeld said he wasn’t interested in nation building in the country. Well, we can certainly see that now. The reverse, a processof nation destruction, seems to be the outcome of yet another failed and discredited episode in the so called war on terror. A government of corrupt gangsters rob the aid money, line their pockets (and Dubai bank accounts) and prepare to make a sharp exit. The Taliban prepare to resume power. The corporate mercenaries prepare to replace the NATO forces and the people – well they suffer and starve. All this for an oil pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey and more doubtful mineral exploitation in Afghanistan itself. Nice one, the Project for a New American Century, its poodles in London and the Carlisle Group.

  10. Jeremy Thomson says:

    Alex, thank you for your report on Kabul, exposing the shortcomings of the combination of Afghan government and Allied interests, and the inadequacies of Western aid. It was moving; the conditions outrageous, intolerable…. Please keep reporting on this sad country and the consequences of war. Peace be upon you.

  11. Mark Wilson says:

    I would like to see the rest of this blog – the bit where the poor man says to C4’s camera: Don’t send aid – they only steal it and we never get it.

  12. Imran Chaudhry says:

    Hi Alex, very moving article – as was the TV news segment the other day.

    Can you give links where we can donate to help these people?

    I saw nothing on the DEC website about this (http://dec.org.uk/appeals)

    What can be done about the output of the “billions of aid” being input?

    Thank you

  13. Julia Sykes says:

    I was left speechless by this brilliant piece of reporting Alex. It felt like that time Michael Burke reported from the famine in Africa. It is so important share this with us, and, yes, shame on Afghanistan and shame on the world. Well done Mr Thompson; a brave and shocking film. I have posted it on my Facebook page – don’t usually do that, but was really stirred.

  14. P Halstead says:

    A fantastic piece of journalism -thank you for bringing this light. But please tell us, if we can’t help through traditional aid routes, how can we help?

  15. Barakzai says:

    Afghans are a strong, hardy race. They are resilient and have sustained a way of life that works for them. It may not be a rosy picture for those of us used to the illusions of modernity, but the mighty Afghans still can kick the pants off the world’s strongest militaries, including NATO, U.S. Yes, they are poor, but they are proud, strong, and likely the handsomest people on earth.

    1. martin says:

      What are you talking about illusions of modernity? These people don’t have the very basics. They live in tiny mud huts with roofs collapsing with the weight of snow. Women and children wearing open sandals in freezing temperatures, begging on the streets. People were burning plastic to keep warm and breathing in harmful fumes as they had no wood to burn.

      May be you would like to live in those conditions before you say how hardy they are and don’t need any help. If the Afghans are so hardy how come the cemetery was full of children’s graves who died of cold winter and the appalling living conditions.

      1. barakzai says:

        The richest nations on earth repeatedly and violently invaded the world’s poorest country!

        I would say this reasonably created the circumstances you now so despise!

        The point is that Afghans, nevertheless, and regardless of the circumstances thrust upon them by violent external forces (VOFs), are surviving mightily, proudly and gracefully, and unbelievably just defeated in battle and war – at least in the eyes of any reasonably unbiased military historian – the world’s richest countries.

        That’s saying a lot about the Afghan Way of Life!!!!

        May it live on forever!

        Zinda Bad Afghanistan !

        Maybe some day you can turn your appearing passion for the Afghans into something useful, unless you haven’t already done so?

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