ESHAWAR: Seven-year-old Ursal wakes up at night, crying. Her 6-year-old sister Nazeen jumps when she hears any loud noise. Their 10-year-old cousin Nasim is nervous when he is indoors, afraid the house will collapse around him. These refugee children, whose family fled the Afghan capital of Kabul five days ago, were already ragged, ill and malnourished before the US-led bombing campaign began. Now they have added fear and displacement to the long list of hardships already besetting them.
The extended Gul family — four women and 17 children —slipped out of Kabul before dawn last Thursday, terrified after four nights of thunderous bombardment that shook the poor neighborhood where they lived. Sometimes the warplanes came back by day as well. The family managed to arrange truck transport to a point near the border, which is closed by refugees.
They crossed the frontier in the dark on a steep, rocky mule track, with guides who charged what was for them the astronomical sum of per adult. Exhausted and nearly penniless, they finally arrived in the frontier city of Peshawar over the weekend. Two of the women left behind husbands who will try to follow later; two had already been widowed by earlier fighting in Afghanistan.
They were able to carry almost nothing with them. On their cross-border journey, each adult was clutching at least one small child, and the older children were responsible for shepherding along their younger brothers and sisters. ‘‘We have what we are wearing —that is all,’’ said Qandi Gul, 40, the mother of six girls and a boy, covered from head to toe in burqa. Only her chapped, callused hands showed, palms turned up in a gesture of helplessness.
On Monday, the mothers and 11 of the children made their way to an Afghan aid group, the Welfare and Development Organization. By word of mouth in the refugee camps, it has become a crucial way station for new arrivals like these. Because they are here illegally and fear being picked up and sent home, they are afraid to seek help anywhere else.
Almost all the children were ill with diarrhea or respiratory ailments, said Al-Umera, a 28-year-old doctor treating them. As the family waited in an anteroom at the aid group’s offices, a chorus of racking coughs arose. There are limits to what she will be able to do for them, said the doctor, whose own family fled Afghanistan when she was 5. None of the children has gotten enough to eat in a long time, she says, and malnourishment will leave them susceptible to more illness, especially in the cramped, squalid conditions in which they will be living.
Al-Umera, who like many Afghans uses only one name, questioned the children gently about the bombardment and the family’s flight. Most are sleeping badly, their mothers told her. ‘‘This one has bad dreams — she cries out at night,’’ said Qandi Gul, mother of Ursal, a luminous-eyed 7-year-old who carried her 18-month-old brother Lamzai on her skinny hip.( AP )