Afghans lament lack of guns
Bajaur Tribal Agency, Pakistan
The supplication is the same throughout all Afghan refugee camps. "Why is no one giving us any arms?" A full-bearded camp commander, Muhammad Sharif, gestures angrily to the cluster of turbaned Afghan tribesmen who have gathered inside his modest canvas shelter. It stands amid a tightly packed array of tents housing 800 recently arrived families.
"Look at my men," he demands. "They are willing to fight the Russians. But with what? We have nothing. Only sticks and stones."
This is not entirely true. Almost every Afghan refugee encampment such as Camp Damadola in this mountainous, arid, but fertile tribal area along the Afghan border has at least some guns hidden among its tents.
But with a representative of the government present, the Afghans are reluctant to admit they have such weapons and are careful to praise their Pakistani hosts for providing sanctuary and relief assistance.
Leading a dismal and undignified existence in a crammed camp, Muhammad Sharif , like many other refugees, clings to the proud notion that he is one of the mujahideen (freedom fighters). As he sees it, his duty is to return to Afghanistan and throw out the "communist infidels and worship Allah in a free land." The gun seems to be the solution to all his problems.
To an outsider watching this group of earnest Pushtuns express grievances about the communists, their demands seem forlorn hopes. And yet, for the Afghan refugee, the gun is a symbol that permits him to retain his self-respect.
The Pakistani government is extremely sensitive to Soviet accusations that it is providing military bases and training for the mujahideen to launch attacks against installations inside Afghanistan. Islamabad steadfastly denies this. But military officials readily admit that Soviet overflights into Pakistan, primarily along the frontier areas such as Bajaur, are increasing. The Soviets, who take the attitude that refugee camps are only thinly disguised rebel sanctuaries, have reportedly even begun striking targets on Pakistani soil. No refugee camps have actually been attacked, but last week one foreign observer watched as four Soviet MI-24 helicopter gunships blasted sites well inside the border in North Waziristan. There was no apparent intervention by the Pakistanis.
Although some analysts are already beginning to draw parallels between PLO activities in Middle East refugee camps and those of the mujahideen here, organized resistance among the Afghans is still in its infancy.
There is no indication that Afghan refugee camps are serving as training bases. Nor have the Pakistanis been giving military instruction elsewhere.
There are signs, however, that factory-new Pakistani and Chinese weapons are beginning to drift into rebel hands. One European observer came across Pakistani Army-issue Enfield .303s, identifiable by markings on the butts and black-painted barrels. Tribal-made rifles do not bear such characteristics.
Mujahideen inside Afghanistan have been observed carrying Chinese-made Kalashnikovs. But this does not prove that the Pakistani and Chinese governments are responsible.
Pakistanis are adamant that they are not supplying the rebels with weapons. Nor are they acting as go-betweens for the Chinese, they calm. But even if the Pakistanis, in order to appease the Soviets, wished to assert greater control over the refugees, there is probably little they could do.
"They would find it extremely difficult, if not outright dangerous, to clear out all the weapons from the camps or to forbid the Afghans from engaging in rebel activity," says a Western diplomat. "They'd have a revolution on their hands."
Like most Afghan refugees, Muhammad Sharif and his men have joined a political party. In their case, the radically conservative Hizb-e Islam.
Refugees are supposed to enter their political affiliations on official Pakistani registration forms for relief assistance. Unable to read or write, the majority of the Afghans claim allegiance to their tribes. But the major political parties, whose representatives accompany new arrivals to the registration centers, convey the impression that it is obligatory, when it is not, to join. In this manner, they can lay claim to vast numbers of supporters.
In Bajaur, the Hizb-e Islam appears to be the most influential group. While this writer was drinking tea in a small Bajaur chaikhana, a group of Hizb-e Islam representatives strode up to him and confidently announced that they were prepared to answer any questions.
Like their publicity-conscious colleagues in Peshawar, they claim to command thousands of armed mujahideen across the border, and say they are inflicting heavy losses on Soviet troops.
Muhammad Sharif, however, is not so well versed in political ideology as these young, apparently high school-educated party representatives. When asked why he had joined Hizb-e Islam, he said: "Because they are fighting for Islam.
When it was pointed out that all the other parties are also fighting for Islam, Mr. Sharif paused for a moment. Then he announced his men would be prepared to support any group that would help throw out the Russians.
"We are not interested in politics," he added. "We want our freedom."