How a Camp Becomes a City

The New York Times Magazine
November 18, 2001

Nusrat motions for me to follow him through the crowd. The situation is hectic, and I hesitate, even though Nusrat was a guerrilla commander in Afghanistan who fought the Red Army for a decade, facing far worse than the assemblage of widows and orphans before us.

We are at Shamshatoo, located on a series of dusty, rolling hills in northern Pakistan. Shamshatoo looks like an ancient city; aside from the Toyota pickups and colorful burkas worn by women, everything is a biblical brown, the shade of baked earth older than life. But looks deceive. The houses and walls are made of dried mud, and none are more than two years old. More than 55,000 souls live at Shamshatoo, though in official terms they are not residents but refugees, the homeless of the world for whom we are supposed to care in our caring moments.

Nusrat, who like many Afghans uses only one name, is chatting with me in an unfinished school building when a subordinate arrives with alarming news–a Malaysian relief group is distributing aid nearby. Nusrat is a malek, one of the leaders of the Shamshatoo refugee camp, and he had not been told of the distribution. It is an affront to his prestige as well as a threat to security; the surest way to create a riot among refugees is to hand out food.

The relief group is operating from the courtyard of a house that is enclosed by an eight-foot mud wall, and for the lucky few who shove their way inside, the prize is a slip of green paper that entitles them, at a future date, to a package of food to celebrate Ramadan, the holy month.

The recipients are supposed to be the camp’s neediest, which is why hundreds of women and children and old men mob the house, waving their ration cards like traders in a commodity pit. A man who works for the relief group sits on the wall, above the entrance, and he has a stick with which he whacks the heads of refugees he finds annoying; his stick connects with a turban, from which a puff of dust rises.

“What is happening here?” an old man asks Nusrat, who stands to the side like a scout reconnoitering his target. Nusrat’s life in the camp is an extension of his life in Afghanistan. As before, he faces hard odds in a war to ensure the survival of his people. This is another skirmish.

“Please, be calm, and trust in Allah,” he says.

“Nusrat,” the old man pleads, “please help me.”

“Don’t worry, I am with you.”

He moves in. Refugees have begun thrusting their ration cards at me because I am a foreigner and foreigners provide aid. It seems wise, after a moment’s reflection, to stay close to the former guerrilla leader who overcame the mines and missiles of a superpower. The crowd parts, and the man with the stick checks his swing as we squeeze inside.

“You are not doing this the right way,” Nusrat tells Mateen, a relief official presiding over the bedlam. “You can’t come into the camp, take over a house and start this work without informing us. There is chaos here.”

“It’s not compulsory to inform everyone,” Mateen replies.

Nusrat’s glare could melt a machine gun. He is handsome and fierce in a central-casting way, and you know, without his having to tell you, that your life will be easier if he is not your enemy.

“Open the door,” he orders a man at the gate. “These are widows outside, and you must respect them.”

Refugees have begun scaling the walls. Instead of helping the needy, relief workers grab shanks of firewood and hit the gate-crashers who are not obviously feeble; the truly feeble are merely threatened. A dog in the courtyard howls fearfully, hens squawk and scramble underfoot, a boy serves tea to the V.I.P.’s, dust rises from the trampled ground and Nusrat shouts angrily, “Don’t beat the widows!”

Shamshatoo is a strange beast. It has a corruptible police force headed by a Pakistani administrator who leaves day-to-day affairs to Nusrat and three other maleks (the term dates from the colonial era, when the British used it for local administrators). Each malek presides over a section of the camp, though Nusrat is first among equals. They rose to their positions through an informal process that involved gaining the respect of fellow refugees, Pakistani administrators and foreign relief agencies. They are stronger than the earth, which is necessary in their unforgiving job because there are not enough resources for everyone and the maleks are presumed by many to be stealing the bounty of aid that the world is presumed to be supplying to Shamshatoo.

Nusrat is half deity, half scapegoat.

“When these people go back to their homes, they will blame me,” he says as we walk away, our path occasionally blocked by the neediest of the needy, begging for help. “Maybe they will pray for my destruction.”

Actually, not everyone will ask Allah to smite Nusrat. Scarcity is a dominant feature of refugee camps, but the scarcity is not shared equally; the camps are not classless societies. They have an economic hierarchy, as in a city or prison or any place where a clot of people live and die together. The best way to understand their social metaphysics is to imagine a real-life mixture of “Lord of the Flies” and “Atlas Shrugged,” with a few themes from “The Grapes of Wrath” thrown in.

Throughout the world, more than 20 million people live in refugee camps, and few of them are going home anytime soon. For example, more than two million Afghans live in Pakistan, some for more than 20 years. They arrived in generations of exodus: fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion, fleeing civil war after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, fleeing the 1996 Taliban takeover, fleeing the drought since 1998 and, now, fleeing the United States attack.

In the social structures of the camps, the rules of the outside world are not suspended, just adapted. If you were a village elder back home, you will likely fulfill the same role in a camp, because villagers often flee together. Even if they don’t, they tend to reassemble, over time, in the camps. For an individual or family, the tribe is security, and security is sustenance.

The notion that refugee camps are complex societies becomes clear when I meet Jacques Franquin, emergency coordinator in Peshawar for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Franquin, who is setting up 15 new refugee camps, is surrounded by the accouterments of life in the field, U.N.-style: the driveway outside his office is packed with white S.U.V.’s, and his desks are laden with enough computers and phones to run a war. But the most intriguing item I notice is a blueprint.

The blueprint, for a new camp close to the Afghan border, does not show row after row of tents ringed by fences. Rather, the camp is divided into sections in which refugees will pitch their tents in whatever configuration they wish: close together, with space for a communal garden, or evenly apart, with a bit of private space for each family. If it appears that they will be staying for a long time, they will be encouraged to build mud huts.

“We are planning a marketplace here,” Franquin says, putting his finger in the center of the map. “We know it is necessary. These people are not in a jail. We are trying to create the social fabric of a society, as in a town, by planning schools and bakeries and more. Here we will have a community of 10,000 people. We know we will need at least four mosques.”

The popular image of refugee camps is simplistic–rows of white tents filled with miserable, helpless people waiting to be fed by American or European relief workers. That is often the case at camps hurriedly assembled in emergencies, though in truth most relief workers are drawn from the local population. When the Western media rush off to a fresh disaster, the refugees usually remain behind, and once the shock of dislocation passes, the camps begin a metamorphosis.

There are more than 100 camps in Pakistan, though U.N. officials often refer to them as villages. Most camps have been around for more than a year or two, so only a few, like Shamshatoo, still distribute free food. Distributions of food are like training wheels for a camp: after a while, as refugees find jobs inside or outside the camps, the donated sacks of wheat and tins of cooking oil disappear. Other subsidized services, like health and education, continue indefinitely. The U.N.H.C.R. budget for Pakistan for 2001 is $18.4 million, but that covers only part of the costs; the U.N. World Food Program pays for food distributions; and private relief groups offer a variety of supplies and services, like building materials, well digging and job training.

That is why Shamshatoo is beginning to look like an established refugee community, like the one a few miles away known as “old Shamshatoo,” which has existed for 15 years. Shamshatoo–the new one–already has 41 secular and religious schools, four health clinics, more than a dozen bakeries, a number of mosques and more than 200 wells.

The camp, which began in December 1999 with 156 families, includes virtually every ethnic group of Afghanistan, with the largest at the camp being Tajiks, followed by Pashtuns. Most are from the drought exodus, so they are not deeply politicized. Still, the ethnic tensions that existed back home are carried into exile; disputes over access to wells is a constant sore spot; and it is the job of Nusrat, who is Pashtun, and his fellow maleks and sub-maleks to smooth things over. They usually succeed, because life does go on; there is a birth or wedding almost every day, as well as funerals.

“When people are put in a survival situation, they become imaginative,” Franquin says. “Refugees need to find solutions in order to survive. But especially with Afghans, they react quite quickly. So if you plan a camp well, you will see a quick development, and it’s fascinating.”

Franquin has an unusual ability to detect, and become enthusiastic about, a camp that moves from abject misery to ordinary misery. In this way, he is not unlike a neurologist who draws satisfaction when a stroke victim recovers some of his faculties. Shamshatoo would fit into the category of ordinary misery. It is not nearly as hellish as Jalozai, a nearby camp where Afghans live under tents made of plastic sheets and in sanitary conditions below appalling. Shamshatoo is home not only to wretchedness but also to hope, as I learned in its bazaar.

The heart of Shamshatoo is a nameless crossroads of nameless roads. More than a hundred merchants have opened shops along the dirt intersection, though none of the shops have signs because signs are luxuries. Several open-air restaurants serve spicy rice and beef kebabs, and stores offer lanterns and vegetables and soft drinks and lumber and bolts of cloth. Until recently, there was an embroidery shop that also sold cosmetics. That shop closed not because business was bad–it was quite good–but because it was looted when its owner went home for an evening meal.

A foreigner stands out in the bazaar, which is why Amin Ullah approaches me in the shade of a vegetable stand. He says his family makes carpets and offers to show me their loom. We walk down a dusty street, then into a narrow alley, then through the gate of a walled-in home that has, in its courtyard, flowers growing from plastic buckets that hang from beams over a patio. Pathways in the courtyard are lined with bricks, and I notice several young trees–pleasant status symbols in a camp with little greenery.

The loom is in the shade, and sitting before it are four of Amin’s siblings, weaving with their nimble hands. There are Samim, 15, and Mubaraz, 14, Shabistan, 9, and Tamim, 8. Amin, 18, no longer works the loom because his hands have become too large. Although his younger siblings work 12 hours a day (except on the days when they go to school), two months of communal labor is required for a rug that fetches 6,000 rupees, about $95.

The loom is an altar of child labor, and the family is lucky to have it. Notions that prevail in the developed world–that 8-year-olds should not work, especially not in conditions that can damage their eyes and lungs–are reversed in a camp. A child who is not working is a mouth to feed, and although aid groups distribute food at Shamshatoo, it is not enough. Young children are economic assets that wise families seek to maximize.

The Ullahs are the flip side of the widows and orphans and disabled who make it impossible for Nusrat to walk through the bazaar without being harangued. The carpet business has enabled the family to diversify and open a vegetable stand run by Amin and his older brother, Humayun. Thanks to their carpet income, they could spare 5,000 rupees to buy the lumber and bricks to build a shop.

Of course, 5,000 rupees may not seem like much–it is barely $80–but within the camp it is a fortune. The Ullahs are, socially speaking, camp millionaires. Their modest but steady income allows them to eat well, sleep with a roof over their heads, have shade in their backyard and hope for their future. They are better off, even, than a merchant I met who sells cloth in the bazaar and earns about $1 a day. He is able to buy meat every week or two for his family (aid agencies do not distribute meat), and thanks to the occasional kebabs, his family is far likelier to remain healthy than families without meat.

These apparently small distinctions mean the difference between life and death. A family that can build a mud hut is a rung above a family that lives in a tent. The family with two goats is better off than the family with two hens, and that family is better off than the one with no hens at all. The pecking order is influenced by the length of time a family has lived in the camp. Basically, the more recently you have arrived, the harder your life is. The best-located tents or huts are already taken, as are the jobs. And because your exodus has likely drained your finances, you have not had a chance to accumulate funds to buy a goat or start a business. You are at rock bottom.

The situation for new arrivals is especially pitiful these days because the Pakistani government is reluctant to let the U.N.H.C.R. register and distribute food to them. The government fears that tales of relative plenty will only encourage more refugees to come. Washington, itself worried about the public-relations disaster of a huge influx of desperate refugees, has not pushed particularly hard for Pakistan to change its policy.

It is difficult to say how many newly arrived refugees there are at Shamshatoo. There appear to be many, but because they could be deported if they are found, they keep a low profile, staying with friends or relatives or strangers who are poor themselves but help out nonetheless. U.N. officials in Peshawar call them the invisibles, though it is not hard to find them because the U.N. estimates their size at 130,000 and growing every minute.

A group of them lives in the courtyard of a mud compound just around the corner from the Ullahs. The group consists of four families that fled Kabul after selling all their belongings to finance their exodus–principally, bus fares, bribes for border guards and fees for the smugglers who led them across. By the time the group of 24 arrived at Shamshatoo, they had nothing left, and their hardened elder, Sadiq Ghulam, wanted to strangle the world.

“How are we going to live here?” he asks as we speak in the only shaded space available in the courtyard–behind an outhouse. “We have no money, no food. Where are we going to stay? There is no bombing here, but we will starve. If I had known that I would be humiliated in this way, I would have chosen to die in Kabul. We are not responsible for the acts committed in America. We are ordinary people; we are not terrorists. Why are we being treated like this?”

As bleak as things may look to Sadiq Ghulam, his situation is no more than typical and for many refugees, like the Ullahs, purely temporary. Amin explains that his family arrived in Pakistan more than a year ago after fleeing their hometown north of Kabul. Because they knew how to make rugs, they struck a deal with a merchant who lent them a loom and yarn in exchange for the right to purchase their carpets at a discount. “Other people here waste time,” he says, “but we have a plan.”

And they live well, relatively speaking. They have electricity, which is a luxury that the family must pay for, and their dwelling consists of several tidy rooms. The main room, where the family takes its meals and receives visitors, is covered with Afghan carpets and pillows and has a cozy feel. When I stop by the house on my last day in the camp, Amin and his industrious brothers are at work again–building a new room.

Another emergency walks into Nusrat’s life. This time it is a dispute between an old man and his nephew, who happens to be married to the old man’s daughter. (This occurs among Afghans.) The nephew/son-in-law is beating his wife, and for Afghans this is not a matter to be handled by the police but by a Solomon figure. That would be Nusrat.

“My son-in-law is mad,” Aman Ullah explains. (Ullah is a common name in these parts.) “Every day he is fighting with his wife, and I am worried about her, so please convince him to leave our house because if not, maybe he will kill me or I will kill him.”

Aman sits on a mat with Nusrat in the unfinished school, which is serving, until it opens, as Nusrat’s office. The old man is about 55, but that counts as aged among a people with one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. Nusrat calls him baba, the Pashto term for a respected elder.

“Don’t worry, baba,” he begins. “We have suffered for the last 30 years. That’s why your nephew has mental problems.”

There is no mention of punishing the nephew, Wase Ullah; this isn’t done in Afghan culture. But Wase is refusing to leave Aman’s house. Nusrat’s solution is simple: Wase should move into a room that will be built onto the back of the house with a separate entrance.

It is a wise idea, but it must be sold to a violent and psychologically unstable man. Nusrat walks with Aman to the house, which is like many others in the camp–surrounded by mud walls, with two rooms and two U.N.-issued tents in the backyard. The house has the good fortune of being located downhill from a well, so the runoff flows through a channel into the yard, which is filled with rows of corn and other vegetables.

Aman loses no time in taking the high ground.

“Why are you beating your wife?” he asks Wase. “Yesterday when you started beating her, she fainted, and when you left the house, we were left to take care of her.”

Wase, a tall and lean man with a look in his eyes that tells you to stay away, loses no time in taking the low ground. “She is my wife, and that is my own business. If I want to kill her, if I want to beat her, that is my affair.”

Nusrat’s offer will not suffice.

“I need two rooms,” Wase says. “One is not enough.”

The guy is trying everyone’s patience, but Nusrat does not lose his cool. He has a way with people that is unrelenting yet soothing. He lectures Wase while holding his hand. He makes threats and quotes the Koran, but Wase continues to resist.

“If you don’t accept this offer, we will try something else that you won’t like,” Nusrat warns.

This is his way of saying, “I’m making an offer you can’t refuse.” Wase catches on.

“I’ll agree with you because you are a respected man in this camp. I accept your decision.”

And then, suddenly, Wase and Aman are hugging.

For Nusrat, a small disaster has been avoided for people who live amid a large disaster with no apparent end.

“Wase has a mental problem, but everyone suffers from such problems,” he says afterward. “If I became angry with them, who would take care of them? There is no one who isn’t injured by the war. Some have injuries you can see; others have injuries you can’t see, that are inside. If their problems don’t get solved, they will fight and get hurt. So I must look after them. That’s my duty.”

Bashir Ahmed Zai’s life was ruined, like so many others, by an artillery shell. It fell on a Kabul marketplace in 1997. Bashir heard the explosion, and because he is a doctor, he rushed to the scene. He was surprised to find his girlfriend’s mother and brother among the panicked crowd.

“What’s happened?” he asked.

He saw his girlfriend lying on the bloodied ground. He knelt and shouted her name. No response. He shouted again. No response. He wiped away the blood on her face and shouted her name once more. Nothing. He pulled off the scarf that was around his neck and covered her with it. The woman he planned to spend the rest of his life with was dead.

It hadn’t mattered that Bashir and his girlfriend despised the Taliban, which had recently seized Kabul. The shell that killed her was fired by soldiers led by Ahmed Shah Masoud, whose anti-Taliban forces had no concern whether their random ordnance killed civilians. Mayhem they wanted; mayhem they caused.

This was the last straw for Bashir. He had already quit the hospital where he had worked, because the Taliban fired the women who worked alongside him, including his girlfriend, who was also a doctor, and they had ordered him to grow a beard. Bashir is a good Muslim, but he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to be a good Muslim.

Bashir’s life now revolves around Shamshatoo, where he manages a small pharmacy that has a tiny examination room in the back. It is a rudimentary setup. When a man was rushed into the pharmacy with a high fever, the initial treatment consisted of pouring water on his chest and pointing a fan at him. If the patients can pay, and not all can, they offer rupee notes that have passed through so many soiled hands they feel like wastepaper, slippery to the touch.

In a way, Bashir’s lot is worse than that of most refugees at Shamshatoo because he has fallen further. Bashir was born into the bourgeoisie. His father was a successful businessman who loved to entertain foreigners at his home. They had a big house in Kabul, where they lived during the warm months, and another in Jalalabad, where they lived in the winter.

But refugee life is a leveler. Cultural sophistication and higher education reap few benefits. Indeed, if you are a successful professional, you will most likely become an unsuccessful refugee. For example, Pakistan does not recognize Afghan medical degrees. Outside of the camps, Bashir has no marketable skill, and inside the camps, his skills yield only a small income because the most valuable medical commodity at Shamshatoo is not a doctor’s advice–aid groups run four health clinics – but drugs.

Worse, the political rivalries of Kabul followed Bashir into the refugee world. Because of his family’s prominence, gunmen tried to kill him on two occasions, so he moved with his family into a rented home outside Shamshatoo. There are 40 members of the family living in the home–13 adults and 27 children–and they have less than $100 in pooled income each month.

Bashir is unfailingly kind, but his smile is unsteady, as if it were rusty from lack of use. I ask what makes him happy.

“The only thing that gives me pleasure is the thought of leaving this place,” he says.

Nusrat does not want to leave, not yet. he was born and raised near Jalalabad, in a village where his father and grandfather were the equivalent of local aristocracy. Leading his people is a right and, Nusrat maintains, an obligation. That is why, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, he headed for the mountains and took command of more than a thousand mujahedeen.

Once the Soviets withdrew, mujahedeen groups began fighting among themselves and then with the Taliban, and Nusrat wanted no part of it. But a commander of his stature could not fade away.

“I didn’t leave Afghanistan out of fear,” he tells me one day over a lunch of meat in oily water, accompanied by a limp tomato salad and yogurt. “I wasn’t afraid of the Taliban. But I wanted to be neutral, and that was impossible. The fighting was not a holy war. It was a war between commanders, and they were fighting over stones. So I left the country.”

Nusrat has four young children and would like the eldest to become a doctor, but he says this is just a dream. He could probably make it come true, however, because there are better camps than Shamshatoo, and with his intelligence and stature, he might be able to live in Peshawar itself, as the most successful refugees do. These are the merchants and smugglers and warlords-turned-smugglers, some quite wealthy, who have graduated from the camps and live in mansions with marble floors and immaculate S.U.V.’s parked in front.

But that isn’t Nusrat’s way. “These people want me to help them,” he says. “If life is hard for me, it is Allah’s will. I like my people, so I feel good doing this work. You ask if I would feel better quitting this job. The answer is no.”

I ask how old he is. This can be a tricky question for Afghans, partly because a large portion of them are illiterate, partly because they have had more important things to keep track of. Nusrat is not illiterate, but he can only guess at his age, which he estimates as 40.

“For the last 20 years, we haven’t been able to celebrate our birthdays,” he explains. “We have seen only bombing. If you ask about guns and mines and jets and missiles, we can tell you a lot. But our birthdays we don’t remember.”

And where might he be in five years?

“If there is peace, we will be in Afghanistan,” he says. “If there is war, we will be here.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.