Maslakh: a look at Afghanistan's humanitarian disaster

It means "slaughterhouse," an apt enough term as it reflects and links the subjects of food and death. Maslakh is the largest refugee camp in Afghanistan. The largest refugee camp in the world. It's named after a nearby slaughterhouse that has not functioned in quite a long time—there are no animals to process. Now it stands as a source for the name one of the worst catastrophic humanitarian tragedies seen in the decades surrounding the year 2000.

Afghanistan is a poor country, one of the poorest in the world. Much of its population is made up of subsistence farmers and their families. In what (as of the beginning of 2002) is going into its fourth year, severe drought continues to plague these people who already live in a precarious balance due to the conditions of the land, soil, and climate. What crops have grown are quickly depleted, little seems to be growing (and with somewhat mild winters without a lot of snow, spring 2002 does not look very promising), and the animals—which were also suffering from hunger and malnutrition—are long since eaten.

If the food shortage was not enough of a problem, the country has been racked with conflict. There was the Soviet invasion (1979-1989), followed by a period of tribal/civil war which continued even after the Taleban rose to power. Then the United States came in, attempting to bomb the Taleban into submission/extinction.

The long-standing refugee problem (begun by the various conflicts and added to by attempts to escape the Taleban regime) was made far worse with the onset of the current drought. When the US "war on terrorism" began, it exacerbated the problem a great deal, making more flee their homes (occasionally the country, Afghans have long sought refuge in neighboring Iran and Pakistan—almost four million since the Soviet invasion). Additionally, many lost their homes (some their lives) as a result. Further, the conflict disrupted many of the (already inadequate) lines of supply for food and other aid, as well as temporarily caused many relief workers to leave the country or areas most in need.

As a result of the combined problems and situations, Afghanistan—with a population of about 26 million—has an estimated seven million or more people in need of some kind aid (in September 2001, Human Rights Watch issued a press release saying at least 3.8 million people were reliant on food aid at that time). It also has the largest refugee population in the world (outside its borders) and the largest population of Internally Displaced People (IDPs, basically refugees within their own country).

Before September 2001
Maslakh is near the town of Herat in northwestern Afghanistan. It was set up about four years ago (as of late 2001). Even before the events following the start of the US "war on terrorism" it was brimming with people—it was (is) not alone: there are six camps near Herat. According to a United Nations report from 6 April 2001, there had been as many as 700,000 Afghans who had to leave their homes because of the civil war or the drought since June 2000. Most remained IDPs and many swelled the camps near Herat where, according to Omiad Weekly (the "most widely read Afghan publication in the world"), "120,000 IDPs [live] in just one of the camps" (—and at the time that wasn't even Maslakh, which the article notes has only 80,000.

In early April, the camps were averaging 225 families a day and by the time of the article (15 and 16 April) it was up to between 300 and 400, with an estimated thousand new people a day. At the time, the "aid community" was able to cope, but according to the UN regional coordinator for western Afghanistan "we are dependent on continuous support from donor countries."

Sanitary conditions were already atrocious, Maslakh being singled out as the worst, where even the 1,200 latrines being built would leave them about 2000 short. This, of course, leads to the spread of disease. And for the camp of 80,000 there were only one hundred wells—one for each 800 plus persons (the reader can do the math for the latrines).

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) was able to keep up with the need, but even then—about five months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and even longer before the American bombs began to fall—they were estimating that it would have to "continue providing assistance at current or higher levels for at least 12 months."

The US was aware of the problem as can be seen from an Islamic Republic News Agency article from 20 April (the information was provided by the US ambassador to Pakistan), where it is announced that a three man "humanitarian assessment team" was finishing a seven day mission that "has highlighted the US government's ongoing concern for the humanitarian crisis." The ambassador reported that "we needed an eye's-on assessment of which way the situation was going. Our preliminary reports say that things are bad and going to get worse up there" (

By May, CNN reported that Maslakh has 100,000 IDPs with about 2000 arriving daily. It also noted that the UN aid workers no longer had tents to give out—there was no real "place" to put the refugees and they end up in enormous tent cities (in some cases made out of plastic sheeting) or sleeping in the open. The previous "coping" seems to be gone as CNN notes that "there is not enough food to go around" (

A little over a month later (22 June) the WFP released its Emergency report. It mentions the registration process and says that it needs to be improved. Relief workers register all new arrivals (in theory, it is much more difficult to accomplish, in practice) so that those who are really IDPs can be given the aid they need. This has been a problem all along, growing much worse since September 2001, with people who are not refugees getting aid that should not be going to them or people registering more than once under different names in order to get more food. More often than not the latter is a means to make money on the black market (or often out in the open in Herat) rather than a way to better feed one's family. That this makes the crisis worse by depriving others should be unnecessary to note.

According to the report, 2,079 families (about 10,000 people) were registered that week in Maslakh. The report also states that "it has been decided that Maslakh camp would be closed within the next two months" (, which it was not. It would only grow and the disaster along with it.

In the 4 July Assistance for Afghanistan Weekly Update, a date was given (28 June) when the registration center was to be shut down so it could be shifted to another camp. This has yet to happen (as of early January 2002). In the Update, it reports a survey of 157 families. Of these, 21% were without potable water and 99% believed the upcoming "harvest would be a disaster" (

After September 2001
Following the World Trade Center attacks and the beginning of the US "campaign" in Afghanistan, more stories bean to filter through the media. Still few and far between (some commentators have noted just how few "humanitarian" stories compared to Bosnia or Kosovo) and the most informative tending to come from non-US sources. Still, the public awareness of the severity of the crisis was (is) low, even though "Maslakh—a name that should be on every newspaper front page—is the biggest refugee camp in the world" (Madeleine Bunting in a column for The Guardian on 17 December). But if one searches, one can find out the sad details of the disaster. It only gets worse.

Late November 2001
The New York Times printed an article on Maslakh. Now, it had grown to between 150,000 and 300,000—the numbers will always be estimated as the registration process is slow and cheaters exist; also the death rates in the camp with the numbers of incoming refugees (many who aren't or can't be registered) make the population too fluid to pin down. The camp had now been open long enough that primitive shelters made of sun-baked mud are being used in addition to the inadequate supplies of tents.

Interestingly, the article claims that the refugees have been "pushed from their homes, and pulled here, not by war but by drought," something that would surprise many of the refugees and aid workers (as noted, war isn't the sole or even main cause, but to assert that it isn't a cause seems almost deliberately sloppy). On the other hand, later—almost in passing—it's noted that the "delivery of food aid here was interrupted by American airstrikes" ( When the fighting began most aid in the country did stop, as it became too dangerous for workers there. Even following the fall of the Taleban regime, workers would be harassed and aid convoys forced to pay high tolls to cross bridges and pass crossings by United Front soldiers.

Of course, a more clear explanation for the cutoff at the Herat camps came from a spokesman for General Ismail Khan ("the region's top warlord") and was reported in an article in the Detroit Free Press on 3 December: the airport had been closed down because it had been bombed out by US planes.

Even though there are some somewhat "permanent" structures for shelter (though far to few to go around), the NYT article quotes a doctor there that fifteen or twenty people can be found sleeping in one room. It mentions one woman who has none of the precious few blankets available and has her twelve children huddle under her chador to sleep at night.

In addition to the poor sanitation that cannot keep up with the growing masses, this arrangement of many people in small confined spaces helps facilitate the spread of disease and infection. The laundry list of diseases and maladies includes "malaria, diarrhea, tuberculosis, dehydration in summer, respiratory ailments in winter, parasites, hunger and cold," the doctor at the camp estimating that around 30% of the camp inhabitants have recurrent malaria and almost as many have tuberculosis. There are women—as young as thirty—whose bodies no longer can produce milk for their children. Children who are malnourished and in many cases starving. Signs of the protein deficiency disease kwashiorkor becoming more common as evinced by children with swollen hands and feet and sometimes bellies. Marasmus, a deficiency of fats and carbohydrates, is also common—these children emaciated and remaining quiet; no energy to cry.

Medical equipment for testing was almost nonexistent (little sign of improvement forthcoming) and with the patient to doctor ratio, it became difficult to treat in anything more than the most cursory way. All that was worse while the Taleban was in power. The doctor from the article saying that "religious police" would come and threaten to beat him for examining women (some of whom were uncomfortable and/or reluctant to allow themselves to be examined anyway, according to a relief worker in an interview for National Public Radio—I regret I cannot recall when I heard this but it was December 2001). They also made it next to impossible to properly make counts of the refugees, even disallowing graveyard counts of the deceased (where an alarming number of childsize mounds continue to increase).

As of the date of the article (26 November), foreign aid was finally becoming to trickle back into a flow, with trucks from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN, and the Red Crescent Society.1 Aid that would be desparately needed, though almost certainly short of what would be needed to "cope." Since 11 September, the camp had registered two thousand more families.

A few days later (29 November), reports from Maslakh offered grim testimony to the state of things in the camp. An Associated Press story reported that four refugees had died in a "stampede" for food near the camp. One of the deceased was a four year old girl whose mother said ("wailing as mourners threw handfuls of dirt in the grave") "I'm glad she died quickly. What is the use of living like this" ( According to camp officials, this is not the first time this had happened. Because of the crowded camp and its inability to keep up with the influx of people (both registering and giving aid) many were gathering around the camp "in a field ringed with human waste. Many were coughing, a sign that communicable diseases are spreading. Few had even a thin blanket to ward off near-freezing temperatures."

The question of "why" presents itself. Why go to places of such human misery? Because the people have no other alternative. At least there is some promise of food, shelter, and medical aid—in the mountain villages there is nothing, the food is gone, wood for fuel is gone. A driver (who profits from taking truckloads of refugees to the camps) was quoted as saying "if you saw that area, you would prefer this to that. It is cold there already. The snow has not come yet, but the snow will come and kill everybody." An exaggeration, to be sure, but not enough of one to offer much comfort—the report goes on to add that UNICEF has warned that as many as a 100,000 children could die of "cold, disease and hunger if essential relief supplies are not made available in the next few weeks."

It should be noted that some families remain in their villages because they cannot make the long trek (those that do often lose family members along the way) or pay to be taken to the camps. Once winter has set in and the snows come, many of these villages may become inaccessible. In or out.

November ends
With the Taleban mostly out of power and aid returning to the camps, things were still not looking positive. In a story from the Newark Star-Ledger, Farnaz Fassihi writes of a man tallying the numbers of dead. He had found forty-two who had died from cold and hunger in the previous twenty-four hours, alone. A wife and mother was being buried after having frozen to death the night before (exposure made worse by the lack of tent). Her husband adds that she hadn't eaten in ten days.

The day before the article, thousands of people rushed the aid vehicles that were bringing blankets and water. Trying to avoid a situation like the earlier "stampede," the guards beat away people with sticks. It's really come to this. And if you aren't registered, you aren't eligible for food—and the food packages dropped by the US mostly end up for sale outside the camps where those most in need cannot afford them at 50¢ a piece (some have ended up crashing into the houses of Afghan people).

Sanitation is still an ever-present problem. The children have no winter clothing or socks and few even have shoes. The coming winter was concerning all the aid workers as it would not only create more problems with those in the camps already, but would almost certainly continue to cause the population to grow.

A twenty year old mother of four (no tent, only a blanket spread on the ground) is quoted, saying "No one cares about us. We are dying of hunger and thirst. We are sleeping in the cold night after night" ( She explains that she feeds her children weeds and grass. Her husband collects garbage to burn for warmth. She asks "Do you know if anywhere in the world there are people suffering like us?"

No, I don't.

December 2001
As December opened, the outlook remained bleak. At least 200,000 are accounted for, with the understanding that the number is surely low. New arrivals continued unabated and the prospect of many, many more concerned aid workers. In addition to IDPs, thousands of refugees were arriving from nearby Iran—in some cases voluntarily, in some because they were forced to return.

This deportation is a violation of international law, as according to the UN (from "Countries may not forcibly return (refoulement) refugees to a territory where they face danger or discriminate between groups of refugees" and that "states have an obligation to cooperate with UNHCR" (Iran having been a UN member state since 1945). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated between November and the end of 2001, about 80,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan.

The mud "houses" are being continually built by Maslakh's "citizens" and the camp, according to a 3 December story in the Detroit Free Press, is now three miles long (4.8 km). Considering the number of inhabitants, the extent of the overcrowding becomes more clear. Each family can only be given about a bowl of sugar and flour (mixed with some oil into a thin gruel) each day ("typically five or six people" according the article's source).

A journalist visits Maslakh
On 9 December, The Telegraph published a story detailing the horrible conditions in Maslakh. It introduced a woman who, along with her five children, had last eaten over a week previous. The meal? A bowl of rice they had to beg for. A couple days before the story was filed, her two year old froze to death during the night. Winter has arrived and it's taking its toll.

At that time it was estimated that as many as forty people were dying of cold and starvation each night as temperature fell "well below zero" (given the source, I assume it means Celsius). Water freezes and so do the people of Maslakh—many still without tents or the mud brick shelters. But there are six cemeteries. One wonders how long before they become inadequate to "serve" the people in the camp.

The conflicting estimates arise when the camp administrator claims the camp has a population of 800,000 and a survey by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) says it is 300,000. Probably somewhere in between but it's difficult to know for sure.

Most harrowing are the stories and pleas of the people.

Imagine not being able to feed your children or to keep them warm, to wake up and find them dead. Please help us, we have lost everything, even our dignity.

We had a good life but four years ago the rains stopped and our crops could not grow. We had no food so the cows and goats died and we ate them but they were nothing but skin and bones. then there was nothing to eat but grass and even that died.

The journalist (supposedly the first western one to actually visit the camp, itself) was given a nine month old baby to hold. She writes that she almost dropped it, shocked that it "weighed so little—less than my notebook."

The woman who was introduced earlier told of traveling there with her family (four children and her husband, who is blind) and five other families. How, upon arrival, the camp—having trouble coping with the masses already there—would not allow them to register. According to her, the camp authorities "just tell us to get out and beat us and even the children if we do not move from the registration office." Three of the children in their traveling group had already died, "when we woke they were all wrapped around each other."

There is frustration and even anger (and despair) over the situation. The governor of Herat is quoted as saying "the world has made us a lot of promises. Now people are dying and it has no excuse to act." People are upset that the world is focusing on the Taleban and Osama bin Laden "rather than tackling the conditions which led to them taking over the country.

One woman (the mother of the tiny baby) said "when the Taliban fell we thought the international community would help us. I'm so angry and depressed I even dream of leaving my children here and walking away. If you are a mother can you imagine ever saying that?" The other woman from the beginning of the piece has the final word for the article:

Now I can show my face whereas under the Taliban I wouldn't dare walk around like this or I would be beaten. But what is the use of that if every night you go to bed with empty stomachs?

We thought after the Taliban that life would be better, but now I don't know if we'll survive.

December continues
It's not that no aid is arriving. According to a report from the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, "UNICEF has distributed winter emergency relief items to Maslakh IDP camp in Herat—10,000 blankets, 10,000 mattresses, 6,000 children's sweaters and 6,000 pairs of winter shoes" ( It also notes (not specifically to Maslakh) more shipments of food from the WFP, medical supplies furnished from the World Health Organization (WHO), and more supplies from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

With the "security problem" becoming less of a concern, aid groups were able to move more freely and distribute more food. And more donations were coming in. But the problem remained the same. Not enough food and supplies, too many people in need. Of course sometimes reports assure that not to be the case as in a story by Australian journalist Hamish McDonald that was dated the day after the Telegraph piece. In it he writes that those who register can "get access to food, shelter and medical aid—of which there is no shortage, according to aid workers" ( That this seems contrary to most every other report, the refugees, themselves, and the rest of the article seems odd.

One of the main subjects of the article is the registration process and how it isn't doing its job (largely because of the huge crush of humanity at the camp). It explains that "the difference between life and death for possibly hundreds of children is a sheet of paper" (the registration). And that those who are able to "muscle" their way to the front of the line (so to speak, though sometimes literally) are more likely to get those registrations. According to the story, there have been "reports and visual verification of people being trampled to death trying to register." And despite the IOM registering as many 1,300 a day, it cannot keep up with the number of people there and those arriving.

But the registration process seems to be a necessary evil and without it, the situation would be worse. Those that can get registered gain access to food and medical care. Once registered, a medical screening is given and children are vaccinated for measles—in December, UNICEF and WHO began a widespread measles vaccination program for the children of Afghanistan (about 35,000 die yearly of the disease which makes up about 40% of "vaccine-preventable childhood deaths," according to UN figures).

But none of it is possible in Maslakh without the registration. And those not able to get registered are simply turned away. A refugee tells a similar story to the one in the Telegraph: "we can't register, and when we go the food kitchens or the clinics say, 'You are not registered, go away' and drive us away with sticks." The man adds that "we are beggars. We beg for money to buy food, and we are sleeping without shelter in the rain. Every day someone died. Yesterday we lost five children."

Officials hope that they can re-register the people at the camps near Herat. They are waiting at Maslakh until a new camp can be opened (and Maslakh closed, presumably). The story ran 10 December, but as of 9 January 2002, this is still the plan but it hasn't yet been accomplished. Recall that the camp was to be shut down prior to September, according to the WFP report.

A new year: January 2002
The promise of a new year doesn't seem to pervade Maslakh, which is described on 1 January by a writer for the Denver Post as "a teeming city of tents and mud huts and ground covered by plastic sheeting" ( He then introduces the reader to a family who is living in a pit dug in the hard, cold ground. They try to keep warm at night: "we lie near each other," said the mother of two, "punctuating her statements with a raspy cough." Another family sleeps thirty under a burlap tent held up by tree branches.

The story reports that there was a shortfall of about 5000 (enough for 30,000 people—though given known information, they would probably hold far more). And even with increasing food aid, "nearly everyone complains of being hungry." What firewood that can be had consists of brambles gathered from a mountainside which requires two days of travel on foot. The article adds that "for food, residents fight it out." Residents who have nothing else they can do: "we don't want to be here. But we have no choice."

On 3 January, The Guardian quoted a man with Feed the Children who has fifteen years experience in humanitarian disasters: "I always judge everything by what I have seen in Africa. And this is on the scale of Africa. I was shocked at the living conditions of the new arrivals" ( It also estimated the population at 350,000, with about one hundred dying daily of exposure and starvation. At that time, there were four bakeries working to feed the people—with only 8000 loaves of bread a day. Plans to get sixty built and working are in the works. Meanwhile the people wait.

The reporter was mistaken for an aid worker on numerous occasions with people rushing him for help. When they found he was not, they were more than disappointed. Said one woman, "you are just taking pictures. You are not here to help. We can't eat pictures. We are dying. We need food and medicine."

"U.S. Says Helped Avert Wide Famine in Afghanistan"
That was the headline for a Reuters report put out the same day as the above story. The definition of "wide famine" seems in dispute. Especially for the people dying of sickness and starvation. In a bit of self-congratulation, an administrator for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) stated that "it appears from the data we have collected and the reporting we are getting from the field that we have averted widespread famine in Afghanistan. This is a major accomplishment" (

He did concede, on the other hand that "there are areas, remote areas in the Hazarajat, up in the mountains, and maybe in the Hindu Kush in some valleys, where there could be pockets of need" and that "we don't know because no one's been there. ...We are not assured that every single person is being fed now" (ellipsis in original). Interestingly, the report also noted the Guardian article and its contrary assessment (including the Feed the Children organizer's quote) without comment.

This is not to say the US has not made an effort—an incredible effort in many respects—at getting food to Afghans in need, but that it seems to ignore the reality that it isn't near enough, patting itself on the back rather than looking at what is needed to even begin to ameliorate some of the crisis.

The following day, in The Independent, the director for the IOM stated that, following its taking over of running much of the camp, "what we discovered was shocking. It was a complete disaster. It was the worst example of a bad situation. The international agencies had basically given up on Afghanistan, it was a lost cause" ( He added that "Maslakh is not a camp, it's a city. We are trying to get these people to go back home, with support."

The problem is that many have nowhere to return. No livestock, no crops, little potential for either and—more than some might care to admit—many have no homes waiting for them.

A woman who had traveled to Maslakh, who had lost her three children, explained how one died on the trip: "it was our baby. I was so weak I couldn't suckle my baby, and she went away."

A director of WHO is quoted, saying "they should close the camp. It is out of control." But then the people would have nowhere to go and almost no hope of food, shelter, clothing, and medical (as little as they receive now).

9 January 2002
Today is 9 January 2002. The camp is estimated to have 324,000 people with as many as a thousand arriving each day (no update on the number of deaths). Between the camp and the city of Herat, there are close to 700,000 people in need of aid. The UN assures that it has enough food in the country to feed six million Afghans (for how long?) but not enough workers and trucks to distribute it. Some areas are still a security risk. Maslakh is still open and receiving refugees/IDPs. There are now more stories concerning the situation coming out. Maybe that will help. Maybe not. Even if it does it won't be before thousands more die.

Maybe one day I can write a happy ending to the story. Maybe not.

1The Red Crescent Society is similar to the Red Cross, though from predominantly Muslim countries. During the war between Russia and Turkey in 1876-78, the Ottoman Empire used a flag similar to the Red Cross' except with a red crescent to designate its medical and aid personnel. A coalition of the many national societies of both organizations was established in 1919, under the name the "League of Red Cross Societies" and since 1991 has been known as the "International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies."

(Sources: dozens of sources were consulted for this, including multiple pages through the UN site at and its related sites;;;;;;;; and ...story=112688;;;;;;,1002,8384%7E307755,00.html;,4273,4328292,00.html;

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