Afghan IDP Camps: A Look at Structure

In 2002, I coordinated activities within three IDP camps. Our purpose was to enable the IDPs to have a stable and safe environment that provided them life’s basic provisions, while they awaited the time when they could return to their villages of origin.

Surveys were being conducted by international organizations in many of the IDPs villages of origin to determine what was needed to enable returnees to live both peacefully and decently. These surveys investigated the living conditions, security, water availability, land availability, food distribution, and other important survival factors. The surveys were not fully completed when I left the camps. Returns, however, were taking place. Rain was falling in many areas, and crops began to flourish again.

The crops, however, did not subdue the ethnic tensions forcing Afghans to search for safer living environment in the IDP camps. Historial inter-tribal tensions were exacerbated by war and drought. Some Pashtuns were asking to be sent to Kandahar, a predominately Pashtun area, because of the tensions. During the return period of IDPs to their places of origin, there was some fierce criticism of the U.N. by other international organizations that the U.N. was more interested in returning IDPs to their villages than they were with the welfare of the IDPs. There was also political pressure from warlord Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat Province. His concern was that IDPs would stay in Herat and become a burden on the local economy.

There was a combined population of forty thousand in the three camps—enough to fill a medium-sized town. When IDPs arrived at the camps they were registered and then sent to a camp medical clinic for a health evaluation. They were given needed vaccinations at the clinic. The IDPs were also assigned to a permanent shelter structure if any were available. When the population of the largest camp, Shaidayee, increased to over 20,000 we began issuing tents to each family. Each family also received a heater and charcoal or firewood in the winter and we periodically gave them sanitary kits, clothes and other essential items.

Logistics in the camps was one of our major problems. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provided supplies such as sanitation kits and clothing. Even when supplies were available, transport was a major issue. I recall one very large shipment of charcoal was delayed for months and then arrived at the beginning of the warm season.

When families returned to their home villages they received a monetary allowance of around $100US. The families also received agricultural tools, a supply of seeds for planting, and a three-month supply of wheat, and some building materials. NGOs oversaw the areas where the IDPs reurned to and helped facilitate the adjustment of the families.

The camps brought together all of the diverse tribes that populate Afghanistan: Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Pashtuns, and members of smaller ethnic groups. But IDPs lived segregated existences: they usually arrived at the camps in homogenous ethnic groups and remained within their own groups during their stay at the camps. Despite the ethnic tensions in Afghanistan, I never received a report of ethnic conflicts among the residents of the camps I managed. The political life in the camps was surprisingly well structured along ethnic lines. Groups of families, usually from the same village or area, chose leaders to represent them. These leaders worked with camp management and discussed the concerns and grievances of their constituencies.

The reported conflicts I did receive—always in the largest camp—involved the local military unit, who were primarily Tajiks. The Tajik soldiers allegedly entered dwellings of Pashtun families and accused them of being Taliban sympathizers and of hiding weapons. They then searched the dwelling and harassed the occupants. There were also reports that these soldiers removed young Pashtun men from their residences and took them to a jail in central Herat where they were accused of being Taliban soldiers, beaten, and badly mistreated. When the ethnic leaders in the camps reported incidents such as these, the complaints were immediately communicated to both the Ministry of Repatriation (MoR,the Afghan governmental authority responsible for the camps) and to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More often than not, it was difficult to identify the actual perpetrators of the reported crimes, but the MoR did transfer units of the local militia unit away from the camp and replaced them with other units. The new units, also members of the local militia and Tajiks, were apparently told to stay out of the camps. There were no further reported incidents.

Women’s Issues

Most camp women did not wear burkas, the loose over-garment that covers a woman’s face and body. Rather, the majority of the women in the camps wore the colorful dress of their tribes and areas of origin and their faces were uncovered. The uncovered faces of the women conflicted with my preconceptions. I asked a local focal point about the difference in attitude and dress of the IDP women, and was told that the rural women, whether Tajik or Kuchi, were not as sheltered from public life as city women. Apparently, Tajik or Kuchi rural women participated openly in the daily public life of their tribes and villages.

Due to the nature of my work at the camps I wasn’t able to travel to the rural villages. But my personal experiences in Herat seemed to validate this information. When I was invited to homes in Herat the women were separated from the men. I might be introduced to a wife, but then she disappeared into the kitchen and the men gathered together. In the camps, when I was invited into a family home or tent, both the husband and wife talked with me. Whether this was in deference to my position as a camp manager or a cultural difference I could not determine. I have been told by educated Afghan women that the rural women not only work in the fields but also manage the economic issues for their families. Urban women, in the past, have remained at home and raised their children and were not involved in the economic decisions. The women I talked with thought that the total involvement of rural women in all phases of family and civic life led to their assertiveness.

There was one issue the IDP women would not talk to me or any other male about: mistreatment or criminal acts committed against them. We, in camp management, found out about such acts only from either block leaders or from the female medical staff. Female members of the UNHCR staff and their local assistants were constantly on the alert for the mistreatment of women. Dr. Lynn Amowitz, M.D., of Physicians for Human Rights U.S.A, conducted a study about women and Pashtuns, titled “Persistent Abuses of Pashtuns.” It is available at This study was conducted in the largest camp which I managed, Shadaiyee.

Camp Leadership

An Afghan male national in each camp assumed the title, “National Focal Point.” He spoke English and Dari —a popular national language. They met frequently with IDP leaders and kept us informed about what was happening within the camps. The local community coveted the focal point’s jobs because they were well paid and, perhaps more importantly, they were jobs in an area with very high unemployment.

The men worked very hard. Because of their positions as bridges to the international administrators they were under pressure from the camp residents and local government officials. During periods when we experienced problems with food distribution the focal points took the heat. They never complained to me about such pressure, and I do not see how it could have been avoided. They were on the front line and the IDPs and the internationals depended heavily on them.

The focal point in the largest camp, which reached a population as high as 28,000 people, was a trained Afghan medical doctor, called Dr. Bashir. Dr. Bashir chose to be a focal point not just because of the salary he received, but also because of his desire to help the IDPs. I assume his motivation to become a medical doctor and his medical training contributed to his empathy for the IDPs. He was deeply and sincerely concerned about the IDP’s welfare. Dr. Bashir was a Tajik by birth but his concern for the IDPs was ethnically inclusive. During a period of ethnic tensions in the north we began receiving large numbers of Pashtuns, who had been displaced and were forced to flee their home areas. When rumbles of mistreatment by the local militia began to surface, he immediately reported the incidents to me and tenaciously followed up until the problem was solved.

As the camp population varied from day to day, Dr. Bashir also made sure that I knew the number of new arrivals daily so that I could order the proper amount of food for the following day. He was detail-oriented, very organized, and kept good records.

A typical day started at 8:00 AM. I would meet individually with each of the focal points of the three camps. We discussed ongoing projects and any problems that needed urgent solutions. One camp might have a latrine problem, another broken water wells. Severe weather, wind, and heavy rain often caused flooding in the camps that destroyed shelters. On some days a camp focal point might tell me that the doctor in the medical clinic had reported an increased incidence of diarrhea cases in his camp. This might have been caused by a water quality problem, or maybe the sanitation in the kitchens collapsed to unhealthy standards. I then would call cooperating agencies that worked with us and relay the doctor’s report to assure swift remedial action.

The focal points and I worked closely together to solve camp problems. Because of the lack of local resources, there were instances when we had to call international agencies for assistance. When the focal points felt that a particular circumstance (i.e. broken water wells or the need for more tents) required the services of an NGO or U.N. agency, they informed me, not because the focal points couldn’t handle such problems, but because I had to justify their needs in formal requests to the international agencies.

The focal points were an invaluable bridge to the local culture. I tended to want to believe everything the local people told me when they spoke of problems or asked for aid. However, the focal points were better able to distinguish between those IDPs who were truly in need, and those who wanted to take advantage of the system. There were times when local residents from the city would arrive at the camps and try to register as IDPs. By registering, the residents would obtain services such as food distribution and other supplies provided to authentic IDPs. Checkpoints, located on the major roads into Herat, as far as three to four hours away, were meant to turn back false IDPs. But locals wishing to subvert the system would find ways to get forged documents that indicated the areas from which they had fled. The local focal points, however, were not fooled by these forged documents.

Once, due to a lack of supplementary food distribution, I received an emergency radio call from the focal point of one of the camps. He said a large group of IDPs—numbering in the hundreds—had gathered in front of his office in a “food revolt.” He and his staff were unable to leave the office. I called our chief of operations who, in turn, called U.N. security. The U.N. security officer and the local military dispersed the crowd. After the crowd left, and the demonstration was quelled, I met with the leaders of the IDPs and listened to their grievances. The leaders told me that their people desperately needed variety in their diet and wanted to supplement the loaf of enriched bread each of them received daily. They asked for cooking oil and beans. I promised the leaders that I would plead their case to the World Food Program (WFP), which was responsible for the distribution of the food. I then met with WFP officials, and WFP began a supplemental food distribution program. The IDPs were both satisfied and grateful.

This type of cooperation between the local leaders and the international organizations was vital to the successful operation of the camps. The local leaders, being close to their people, were aware of the needs, desires, and complaints of the IDPs. They would communicate these issues to the focal points and internationals, and we would address the issues before they became major problems.

Camp Blocks

The camps were divided into blocks. Block leaders, chosen by camp residents, were usually men who had led the village or ethnic groups prior to their arrival at the camps. The groups historically trusted these men and their function as block leaders was a natural outgrowth of this trust. Block leader meetings were held weekly. Extra meetings were called if and when major problems arose that demanded immediate solutions. We met in a large tent. In the largest camp, seventy traditionally dressed rural Afghan leaders gathered with my staff and myself.

At times, guests from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or other international organizations would come to explain what had caused a particular problem and how it was being solved. An example of a problem occurred when we first began the daily distribution of a loaf of enriched bread to each camp resident. The block leaders reported to us that a problem with quality was causing unrest in the camp. The representative of the NGO which was running the baking operation came to the weekly block leaders meeting and discussed the problem. Block leaders brought examples of loaves which had broken into small pieces. The representative of the NGO explained to the block leaders what was causing the baking problem and how he would solve it. He also brought loaves of bread that had been baked that day to show the improvement. The block leaders then returned to their people and told them that the quality problem had been solved.

At the meetings each leader was given a chance to express his opinions. We asked the leaders how they thought each identified problem could be solved. If it were possible for us to agree to the proposed solution, we would do so. Issues that could not be solved at one meeting were submitted for study or resolution and then taken up at the next meeting. The men were serious and thoughtful; they held fairly powerful positions within the camps and from time to time rumors arose that they were taking personal advantage of their positions.

One area ripe for exploitation was food distribution. When bags of wheat were being distributed to the IDPs, rumors claimed that some block leaders had extra registration cards that they used to obtain extra wheat that they would then sell at the local market. Apparently they would have proxies present the fraudulent cards. A switch to bread distribution instead of bagged wheat stopped these rumors.

Because of the size of the camps we, as camp management, needed to have an internal structure through which we could communicate with camp residents. Block leaders provided this critical avenue. It was from them that we first heard of the militia entering domiciles and harassing camp residents. They would also tell us their people’s needs such as firewood, fuel, or clothing.

The block leaders also met with the local MoR official who oversaw each camp. Because of the dual oversight structure of the camps, a tension existed between the MoR and the international organizations. My guess is that part of the tension could have been caused by the fact that international organizations appeared to be well-funded, whereas the ministries were not. Apparently MoR employees wages did not equal those of either the internationals or the locals employed by the international organizations. Sometimes, following meetings with the block leaders, the MoR official would approach the camp focal points with complaints they said they received from block leaders. These complaints usually involved food or shelter problems. Yet, the block leaders supposedly never complained to the MoR officials about security problems because they felt the officials might be colluding with the military. Thus, the MoR reports were often questionable.

The MoR officials were underpaid political bureaucrats; some of them were former Taliban officials. Because of their previous associations, and perhaps unfairly, I never felt I could really trust them to carry out their duties with a sincere desire to help the IDPs.

One particular block leader spoke for 500 Pashtun Kuchis families. He was, in effect, their chief. A stocky man of medium height with an intelligent face and a charming demeanor, he could have run for office and won in most Western countries. The Pashtun Kuchis were nomads who, with their animals, moved around to verdant pastures where they could graze their livestock. They were a landless people. The chief told us that they last lived in an area badly affected by drought and armed conflict. His people had to sell their camels and goats to pay for their move to Herat where they could obtain assistance. Being Pashtuns, who are associated with the Taliban, they were also subject to human rights violations and violent abuses from other groups. In the area where they had lived, Uzbeks predominated. The worried chief asked us if we would assure him and his group security and assistance if they decided to return to the area in which they had last lived. The chief explained to me that his people, whose ancestors for centuries had been nomads, now wanted to settle down in that area and educate their children.

Maintaining Good Health

Lines of IDPs formed early at the medical clinic in each camp and remained until mid-afternoon when the clinics closed. Both a male doctor and a female doctor would be on duty. (The IDP women would not permit male doctors to care for them.) The major medical problems were directly related to the weather. During cold weather there was a spike in the cases of respiratory illness; in warmer weather allergies and heat-related illnesses predominated. There were also some diagnosed cases of tuberculosis (TB). Victims of TB were immediately taken to the local general hospital for care. Unfortunately, I heard through the grapevine that there was a severe shortage of medicines to treat tuberculosis in Afghanistan.
IDP Camps

There were special supplementary feeding programs in the camps for children under fifteen years of age and for lactating and pregnant women. The feeding programs were done under an agreement between the WFP and an implementing NGO.

We also had a mortuary in the camps. It was located in a simple silver tent and was sparsely furnished with wooden boards and curtains hanging at the entrance to provide privacy. A coffin and burial shroud were provided for the deceased. A Muslim cleric, an IDP in the camp, performed the Muslim religious rite of washing the body. The deceased was buried, on the day of death, in a nearby cemetery. Fortunately, and probably due to the high level of medical care in the IDP camps, the mortality rate in the camps was lower than in many villages in Afghanistan.

Work Finished?

My workday ended, as it typically began, with meetings with the camp focal points. We recapped the day. We discussed how many people had returned to their villages of origin and how many new arrivals had entered the camps. Knowledge of any change in camp population was important because of the need to plan distribution of food and other essential items. We also discussed progress on projects under way, security in the camps, medical emergencies, camp visitors, and the many other daily events to consider to ensure good camp management.

My time as manager of the camps began in January 2002. Prior to my arrival, criticism was directed at some of the IDP camps by both NGOs and journalists. Waves of IDPs were arriving at the facilities and, at times, overwhelming the infrastructure. To deny any problems existed would be to deny reality. The arrival of literally thousands of IDPs at facilities built to house much smaller populations was extremely difficult to deal with. Because of the war, the inclement weather and poor and dangerous roads, vitally needed supplies trickled in. Camp management was constantly in a crisis management mode trying to make do with too few supplies for too many people. At my arrival, however, the overwhelming flow of IDPs had begun to subside and we were able to at least stay close to a balance of supplies for the new arrivals.

I never heard criticism of the camps from the local population. In fact, as is stated elsewhere, many locals tried to register at the camps to get distributions of food and supplies. In the oldest of the camps, close to the city of Herat, some of the IDPs held regular jobs locally. The local government had some concern that the IDPs might decide to stay and become a burden on the already strapped government finances.

In mid-2002 the organization I worked for, due to lack of funding, relinquished the management of the camps. I went on to Kandahar to do development work. The general oversight of the IDP camps was assumed by another international organization. However the day-to-day management, my job, was taken over by Dr. Bashir and the other focal points.

Early this year the population of IDPs at Shadaiyee Camp was down to 3,000 residents and some of the other camps have closed. Sadly, I believe, internationally funded IDP camps will be a part of Afghanistan for many years. Peace has returned to most areas but tensions persist. After decades of war the country’s infrastructure has been badly damaged. Warlords control most of the country and security is non-existent in rural areas. Afghanistan is, at this point, seemingly ungovernable as an integrated national entity. Political instability persists—and where there is instability there are IDPs and refugees.

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