International relief agencies are struggling to cope with over 10,000 displaced Afghans who fled the Taliban movement’s advance into northeastern Afghanistan in September, and who are currently living on islands in the Amu Darya river on the Afghan border with Tajikistan.
The internally-displaced people (IDPs) are predominantly women and children but also include a group of armed fighters from the Northern Alliance, who have been fighting a rearguard action against the Taliban. The displaced are now caught between Taliban forces and a closed Tajikistan border, patrolled by Russian border guards.
“This is a marooned population that is living in a no-man’s land and caught between two armed groups,” Taslimur Rahman, head of UNHCR in Tajikistan, told IRIN late last week.
A recent visit by relief agencies to the islands, known locally as “the jungle”, found the displaced living in “highly insecure conditions.” Agencies reported that some displaced were within 1 km of Taliban-controlled zones; others were in the line of sight of Taliban control posts and had been caught in gunfire exchanges. The Russian border guards have confirmed that rockets from the fighting in Afghanistan have landed in Tajik territory.
A small group of the IDPs attempted to cross into Tajikistan, only to be sent back by Russian forces, Rahman told IRIN.
The preliminary visit concluded that the displaced were highly resilient, with the initiative to build makeshift reed shelters and set up a small market, he added. Despite this, humanitarian agencies have estimated that the displaced could last only a few more weeks on their own resources, and would encounter difficulties coping with winter. With supplies dwindling, families have increasingly been approaching people in the border area asking for food.
The presence of a group of armed men among an otherwise civilian population, precariously located, posed a serious dilemma for international agencies, according to humanitarian sources who spoke to IRIN.
In meetings with the Tajik Government, UNHCR has proposed separating civilians from the militia and allowing the civilians to cross the border, rgwewby removing any immediate danger and allowing assistance to be delivered.
Rahman believed the Tajik government was concerned that opening the border would encourage a larger influx of Afghan refugees. Tajikistan, like Afghanistan, is already suffering heavily from the effects of drought.
The assessment of the IDPs near the Tajik border concluded that the chances of separating militia from families, or convincing them to move to somewhere safer, were not very high. Relief agencies have scheduled a return to the area for an in-depth assessment to determine how to target assistance in such a way that it only reaches women, children, elderly and the wounded.
“The reality is that we cannot ignore this civilian population. Yes, there are armed men, but the overwhelming majority are women and small children. Do we allow over 9,000 people to suffer for a small armed group that are protecting them?” asked Rahman.
One suggestion has been to open humanitarian delivery points within Tajikistan, with access limited to civilians. Although this would be safer for families and the relief community, the concern is that it would attract more displaced to the insecure the border area.
Yet there is a broad consensus among international agencies that a solution must be found. According to Rahman: “This is one of the most politically complex situations I have had to deal with so far. It is not an easy decision and we need time to work out how to help.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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