Winter’s deadly bite returns to refugee camps of Kabul

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The snow that fell on a refugee camp in Kabul last week left thick powder piled voluptuously on the sagging roofs of huts and skinny tree branches, turning the squalor into a winter wonderland.
Mr. Rahmani and his family had fled the fighting in the Sangin district of Helmand Province and had come here to the Charahi Qambar camp in Kabul, one of 46 unofficial refugee camps in the capital.
“Our children were saying, ‘What is this? Is it sugar from God?’ They had never seen snow. Even I never saw snow in my whole life before I came here,” said Mr. Rahmani, who had been a farmer.
He was among the “elders” of the camp who had invited a reporter to join them at the camp meeting place, a lean-to with open sides, bamboo mat flooring and a few rough cushions.
“At first they were happy and played in the snow, until they saw it was so cold and it was a dangerous sugar for them. A sugar from the sky, but it kills,” he said.
This is one of the two camps in Kabul where a total of 22 children died with the cold in the course of three unusually heavy snow storms and unseasonably cold weather, which is continuing.
Most of the refugees here are from Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, and many are from the Sangin district there, which was and still is one of the most violence-prone areas in Afghanistan. Some have been in the camp as long as seven years.
The refugees’ biggest concerns are lack of food and firewood. Everything else is secondary. Few of the children have coats or warm clothes of any kind, other than the occasional ragged sweater. Most do not have socks, and shoes are often little more than plastic sandals.
In some of the houses there are just a few blankets, and it is not uncommon for four people to share one. Nearly everyone seems to be sick, and medical care is spotty — and often unaffordable. “It has been months since we have tasted sugar,” Mr. Mohammad said.
There was fuel, but they burned it. There was food, but they ate it. They said blankets had been handed out, but they sold them in warmer times to buy food. They had sold warmer clothing, too.
A relative handful of aid agencies have provided some services in these camps — hot lunches for schoolchildren through Aschiana, for instance, or United Nations support for families who had returned from refugee camps abroad, or latrine-digging projects, or bladders of water from Unicef.
Agencies worry that giving out too much aid will create dependency and attract more people to the camp. Other Afghans have greater needs. The men in the camps can work when the weather is good enough and there are jobs, although that is not the case now.