Monday, September 25, 2006

Herat Part Three - Life and Death on the Road to Iran

In late January 2001 the temperature around Herat dropped to minus 25 C, brutal numb chilling cold and more than 150 people effectively froze to death in the "Internally Displaced Persons" Camps outside Herat on the road to Iran. The world politically corrected the term to "Internally Displaced Persons" instead of "refugees you are technically not a refugee till you cross a border. People actually discuss this point in offices around the world, but as we drove out to the Camps about 40 km I knew that we were going to a Refugee Camp.

Afghanistan was in the grip of its worst drought since 1971, the fighting pre Taliban between warring factions had destroyed communities and now with the Taliban's Iron Fisted Rule people from rural areas had nothing left but hope. Almost 10% of the population of Afghanistan's 22 million people displaced desperately seeking help and hope. The lucky ones managed to get out to neighboring Pakistan and Iran and had a life of misery in Refugee Camps far from home.

Through another piece of good luck and poor communications between officials we actually had permission from Taliban Authorities to film out at the camps, the plight had gotten so bad that even they realized the need for the world to see the worsening situation in the camps within and that help was needed. The UN and other aid agencies could simply not cope with the scale of tragedy that was unfolding.

You approach the camp on the only road out to Iran, a five hour drive away. At first you honestly wonder what has happened and as we turned into the only permanent building in the area, guards with long whip like sticks were beating men who surged to get to the gate and hopefully food. It was a scene that was to replay itself time and time again whilst were there. This was not cruelty or punishment for the sadistic minded officials, but the only form of crowd control, to stop the food store being over run by the desperate. A two storey mud brick complex with a couple of large rooms for the bags of aid, most of it USAID wheat being handed out by the UN.

I went to the roof and squeezing past the machine gun nests on the roof looked down into the sea of desperation, Every few minutes the guards would open the gate a small way and allow a lucky few men thru to get food.

The official in charge of the camp was in despair trying to do the impossible with nothing, this camp extended more than 5 km's, tents that offered shelter from sun and rain but not from the cold or heat. It is in the middle of a desert terrain without any trees for shade or more importantly fuel for cooking or heating. Taking us down the road we stopped at a tent and I filmed small children queueing for a pail of gruel. They did not complain at their life, for most they knew nothing better at least there was some food here, it breaks your heart to stand there filming as a four year pushes here two year old sister or brother forward with a bowl to get the only food they would that day and then see them both try to walk back through the maze of canvas together trying not to spill the slop. Only children were allowed to get food from this kitchen Aid tent, as the official said we try to feed the children first they in turn take it back for the sick and elderly with whom they share, adults rarely ate in this camp. Were they starving with distended stomachs, no but the fear was that unless aid came and the world started to care it was a real possibility. It was the sound of the cookers hissing that I remember to this day slowly keeping warm vats of gruel, as if Charles Dickens Oliver Twist Workhouse kitchen was in the middle of this desert.

We were then taken down to the arrival area and the official casually mentioned do not worry if there is nothing there when we arrive because more would surely arrive. I always get worried when we are relying on key pictures to tell a story only to be told before we arrive that nothing was there, in many places we have waited hours for nothing to be constantly reminded that we should of been here yesterday.

Filming the Arrival of IDP's outsside Herat

In this case tragically the official was right, next to the Medical arrival tent where all refugees (IDP's - Internally Displaced Persons) are processed and most importantly immunized against disease, there was nothing there. Within five minutes a truck arrived and then another, within twenty minutes four trucks arrived. battered old Russian models with men riding on the rail around the side providing security for there family who were huddled in the back. It wasn't until the third truck arrived that I climbed up to film the scene and the conditions that these people had endured to reach the sanctuary of hope that the camp provided. Few things prepare you for the despair you sometimes face and looking down into the bed of the truck were about 75 women and children crushed together clinging to the hope that somehow they were safe. From babies barely days old to to the old who had nothing. We were told that they had travelled for four days in these conditions to the camp and hope of a better life.

From the trucks they would be processed and immunized for the fear of disease is of paramount in these conditions, like a military operation they would over the next half an hour be shuffled thru the tents and in the whole time we were in Afghanistan this would be the only time that I could openly film women, some in Burqas others with the shroud flung back as they held the children as they cried when the doctors gave injections, what struck me was that in these desolate austere grey and sand was the color of clothing amongst everything I was to film that day this was the only color I saw.

Eventaully our hosts had had enough and not sure of what actual permission we had, they started to get nervous and said we had enough, so true I thought how much misery can you capture thru the lens of a camera. We had more than enough misery and despair for the stories we would file once we left. We drove back to Herat, all of us quiet and I am sure all of praying for a better life for these people.

Was this the worst misery I had ever filmed, no that had happened the previous year in an Afghan Refugee Camp called Jalozai outside Pershawar in Pakistan, and will be the subject of another entry. It was the only time that after a trip on the flight back home that I went into the toilet of the plane and cried myself silly with the nightmare I had seen.

Vaccination Photos by Joe Kainz


21st Century Mom said...

There you were, filming and capturing this story and yet so little is made of this misery. Perhaps that is because that story is replicated far too many times in far too many countries.

So sad.

kivster said...

Mal - not sure the best way to get in contact with you. I am going to Israel for the holiday - leaving tomorrow and will be in Jerusalem. I was looking for a good place to do an 8-miler on Sunday morning and perhaps another 5-miler on Tuesday. I hope you get this sometime soon - you can drop me a comment on my blog and maybe I can figure out a way to contact you.
thanks so much,

Anonymous said...

You warned me. But even so, I just managed to hang on till I got home, then lost it when I saw the kids. jk