Afghanistan’s capital is ill equipped to provide sanctuary to the growing numbers of families fleeing unrest in rural areas
By Stefanie Glinski
KABUL, Nov 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Azrat knew it was time to flee her village in Afghanistan when a mortar landed outside the family house, peppering the air with shrapnel and injuring her eight-year-old son.
The 40-year-old mother of eight had grown used to clashes between the Taliban and the government, but an upsurge in violence in Helmand province's Nad-e-Ali district finally prompted her to leave for the relative safety of Kabul.
"It came too close," said Azrat, who goes by only one name. "After my son was injured, I didn't want to stay."
The family is among thousands of rural Afghans who have sought refuge in the capital as violence increases in many parts of the country, according to the United Nations, which says migration to Kabul rose by 30% this year.
In the past six months alone, 25,000 people have arrived in Kabul, according to data from the International Organization for Migration. Many lack shelter and warmth as the harsh winter gets under way.
Kabul, a high-altitude city surrounded by mountains, is already home to between six to seven million people - far more than the one million it was intended for - and 80% of these live in areas with no formal infrastructure, water or electricity.
"Physically speaking, there is very little room for people to come to Kabul. There are no houses, nothing is prepared," the city's mayor Dawood Sultanzoi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Camps for displaced people could have been sufficient in summer, but our winters are harsh. For these families, even survival is difficult."
Kabul has no formal camps for new arrivals, who tend to seek out areas where relatives or people from the same province have already settled. Afghanistan's Directorate of Refugees and Repatriations identified 54 such settlements across the city.
"These families are living in tents, damaged buildings or mud-made houses covered with tarpaulin," said Mohammad Hussain, regional manager at Welthungerhilfe, a German aid group providing assistance to the new arrivals.
"The major challenges continue to be the lack of food and heating items."
'PEOPLE WILL KEEP FLEEING'
Thousands of civilians have been caught up in the fighting in Azrat's native province, Helmand.
The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 families were displaced in October alone in Helmand. At least 20% of its districts are now under Taliban control, according to the U.S watchdog SIGAR.
The fighting in the province, where U.S. and British troops for years fought to clear Taliban from a string of poppy-growing districts, comes as Afghan government negotiators and the Taliban try to push forward power-sharing talks in Qatar.
"We were in the crossfire," said Azrat outside the small mud-built shack with low ceilings and a dirt floor where she and her children stay, warming her fingers under her breath as the winter's first snowflakes descended.
"My husband who works as a farmer stayed back to work, but he told us to leave and find safety."
With U.S. troops due to leave by next May, many Afghans fear the situation will become worse.
But the camp on the outskirts of Kabul that Azrat now calls home does not provide the safety she hoped for when she fled.
Violence and terrorist attacks have surged in the capital, petty crime is common, and she struggles to provide warmth and food for her family.
Unable to afford wood or coal, the family heat their small room by burning plastic, sitting in thick smoke, their faces covered and their hands extended towards the fire.
With millions burning wood, coal or even plastic and car tyres to keep warm, even the air outside is badly polluted, a situation exacerbated by the mountains that ring the city, trapping pollutants in.
The family hopes to be able to return home. But Dawood Khan, who has lived in the camp for a decade, said most arrivals did not leave.
"I fled fighting in Helmand 14 years ago and I am still here," he said. "The city is not ready for all the people, but this country is a warzone. People will keep fleeing, they will keep coming - and they will stay."
(Reporting by Stefanie Glinski, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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