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Inside Iran, a 'Lost World' of Afghans

On the border of their conflict-ridden homeland, Afghan refugees build to stay, testing their Iranian hosts and relief agencies alike.

The sound of refugees building here is one of men heaving bricks, and the splatter of those bricks slapped into place with mud for cement.

The builders at this remote camp of Afghan refugees, near Iran's eastern border with conflict-ridden Afghanistan, are covered with mud and building daily as if they will never go home.

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"If Afghanistan is secure, then God willing, I would go back soon," says Mohammed Alam Taimouri, who fled to Iran 14 years ago. "But only God knows that."

Mr. Taimouri is renovating one house on his spartan compound to make way for his expanding family. But the refugees are not alone in feeling such pressure. Iran has been a surprisingly generous host, sheltering more than 4.5 million refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq in the 1990s, and allowing them to burden health and education facilities in already poor communities.

Between 1992 and 1995, a large number of Afghans were able to return home. But the number of refugees in Iran today is still 1.4 million Afghans and almost 600,000 Iraqis - twice the number staying in any other country - though Iran receives little outside help. Continued conflict in Afghanistan means that so far this year barely 100 refugees have risked returning home.

"The Afghan refugees in Iran are like the 'Lost World' that civilization forgot," says M.E. Reza, an official of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), one of the few outside agencies working here. "It has been eclipsed by other refugee crises, and receives almost the lowest support in the world."

Still, for 18 years, Afghan refugees regionwide have been the single largest global UN caseload, peaking at 6.2 million in 1990.

Today the ultra-Islamist Taliban militia controls two-thirds of Afghanistan, and conflict continues in the north - one reason Iran is attempting to mediate a peace. Iran rejects Taliban policies as anti-Islamic, accuses the Taliban of trying to destabilize its border and smuggle across drugs, and supports a coalition of warlords in the north opposing the Taliban.

But Iran also plays its mediating role as a regional power and current chair of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised Iran last month for its peacemaking efforts in Afghanistan. Analysts in Iran say America could speed the current trend toward US-Iran reconciliation by helping UNHCR and other UN and relief agencies

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UNHCR's budget for this year totals just $15 million and may be cut further. Officials say they can barely care for new arrivals, much less expand programs.

"Ultimately, repatriation is the only solution," says Pierre Bertrand, the Tehran-based head of UNHCR for Iran. "The tolerant attitude of the Iranian authorities over the years is more and more put to the test, because of the alleged adverse impact the refugee presence has on developing Iran."

Iran's own budget deficit has tightened belts across the board, he notes, and low oil prices mean that Iranian assistance efforts are "seriously handicapped."

As for so many Afghans, who first began streaming into Iran in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded their country, Taimouri's uprooted life has become routine. Since he arrived, his family of 12 has grown to 17.

Niatak Camp is renowned for a hard and constant wind, which blows sand across the inhospitably hot desert. String and strips of plastic tied to ceremonial poles whistle in the scalding blast.

A report by the International Consortium for Refugees in Iran last year found that refugees in Sistan-Baluchistan province "are the most vulnerable Afghan community in Iran." Other reports have put the malnutrition rate as high as 60 percent for children.

The revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran refused any outside help until 1986. Most refugees took up residence in established towns and villages, worked at any manual-labor job they could find, and, once issued with a refugee card, received Iranian government care and subsidies or became completely self-sufficient.

Even today, only 21,000 Afghans live in "official" camps like Niatak, which has some 7,000 refugees, but some say that an anti-Afghan backlash is building.

"[Of] all the problems that the local people face, many we can attribute to the presence of the refugees," says Amir Hosseini, adviser to Iran's refugee office in the provincial capital of Zahedan.

"The burden fluctuates," he says. Summers strain the health-care system, refugee children pack Iranian classrooms during the school year, jobs are scarce.

"This is a constant problem that is felt by the government," Mr. Hosseini says. "The international community should assist these people because they are human beings. Iran shouldn't be the only one to help."

Some Western relief agencies have begun a handful of projects to help, and some recent aid visitors liken the situation to dire conditions in African camps.

"Our main concern is assistance to new arrivals, but we even find it difficult to manage the status quo because we lack the resources," says Mohideen Bawa, head of the UNHCR office in Zahedan.

Most at risk are refugees in more isolated areas, where there are no camps or government schools and where water must be purchased by the bucket.

One such place is Kal-Khali, where refugees work in 50 brick factories south of the town of Khash. Entire families are crammed into small mud-and-brick houses. Children begin work - digging sand, then handling hot bricks in the kilns - from the age of 7.

"This is a dirty job," says Pati Mohammed Nurhezi, the head man of one factory. He has worked here 13 years. Some of the 18 members of his family crowd around, without shoes and without money to buy water. "There is no remedy. We are thirsty, hungry." Still, he says, "a lot of complicated clashes" in Afghanistan prevent him from going home.

Sarajoddin Barikzehi used to be a farmer, but now works at the Kal-Khali brick factories.

"There are 10 factions in Afghanistan, and we can't live that way," he says. "Here our freedom has been given to us by Iran. We can live and work peacefully - we can be safe from the war."

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