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Originally published Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 4:18 PM

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Winter returns to Kabul's ill-prepared refugee camps

When the children died in Kabul refugee camps last winter, the question was, how could this happen in the capital city, home to 2,000 aid groups, recipient of $58 billion in development aid and at least $3.5 billion in humanitarian aid over the past 10 years? The question this winter is, how could it happen again?

The New York Times

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I feel really sorry for these little children. Their parents are illiterate, poor... MORE

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The snow that fell on a refugee camp in Kabul last week left thick powder piled voluptuously on the sagging roofs of huts and skinny tree branches, turning the squalor into a winter wonderland. The mistake of a toddler named Janan was to play in it.

By nightfall Thursday, Janan, 3, was sick of exposure. On Friday, he never woke up.

He became the first known victim to freeze to death this winter in the mud and tarpaulin warrens of Kabul's 44 refugee camps, where more than 100 children died of cold last winter.

His father, Taj Mohammad, 32, fears Janan may not be the last. "I am worried that more of my children will die," he said.

When the children died here last winter, the question was, how could this happen in the capital city, home to 2,000 aid groups, recipient of $58 billion in development aid and at least $3.5 billion in humanitarian aid over the past 10 years?

The question this winter is, how could it happen again?

The answer appears to be a combination of stubbornness by the Afghan government and the refugees themselves; inadequate deliveries of aid as winter sets in; and, in some cases, desperate families who sold their winter clothes and blankets in the summer to get food.

Last winter, after news reports drew attention to the deaths, aid groups, individuals and the U.S. military rushed in with blankets and warm clothing, charcoal and firewood.

The United Nations organized aid this year to try to get supplies where they were needed most.

In a report in November, the organization's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that distribution of fuel, cold-weather clothing, blankets and tarpaulins would begin Dec. 9, and continue through this month and next, although the agency warned that firewood supplies for February had not yet been financed by donor countries.

Despite the preparations, matters rapidly took a turn for the worse the first time that protracted subfreezing temperatures set in with a snowstorm on Thursday and Friday.

In visits on Saturday to two camps that were the worst hit last January and February, Charahi Qambar and Nasaji Bagrami, residents were clearly ill-prepared for the conditions around them now.

Small boys and girls ran through the muddy ice and snow in open sandals, flip-flops and even just barefoot. While here and there a child had a donated coat or sweater, they were the exception. Some adult men were better clothed, often with donated warm clothing, but few had hats, gloves or warm boots.

"I fear for the future," said Mohammad Yousef, the manager of Aschiana, one of the few refugee groups working in the Kabul camps. "This is only the start of the cold weather."

Abdul Wakil, 8, recounted what had happened to his little brother Janan at the Charahi Qambar camp on the western side of the capital.

"He was playing in the cold and snow," Abdul Wakil said, shivering in a thin cotton shirt and trousers, a pair of toeless socks poking out of the front of his sandals, which he said were his only footwear. "Then he got sick and got a fever and died."

His father, Mohammad, filled in the blanks. They brought the 3-year-old into their mud hut, but its roof was leaking and they were out of fuel. "We couldn't get him warm again," he said. "We were just wrapping ourselves in our blankets, it was all we could do."

They had received an aid distribution of charcoal 15 days earlier, but it had run out by then, he said.

Now the family, with six other young children, has a bit more fuel, donated by friends after Janan's death: a sack of sawdust donated by a carpenter, some roof poles and pieces of dried shrubs. Their only food is some bread and potatoes. Only a couple of his children have warm clothing; the rest are in rags.

"That's all they have," he said, "they have nothing else to wear."

"There are 900 families here and every family has 10 to 15 children," said Najibullah, an Aschiana worker at the Charahi Qambar camp, the biggest in Kabul. Distributions of clothing mostly came after the worst of last year's winter weather. United Nations officials could not immediately be reached to discuss why supplies are apparently still so short in the camps.

In the past, though, officials have said the 35,000 refugees in the Kabul camps are caught in a Catch 22. Their camps are unregistered and the government wants the residents to return to their homes, so they do not qualify for many forms of emergency aid. But most of them come from war zones, particularly Helmand province in these two large camps, and say it is not safe to return.

Afghan government officials and international agencies held a meeting last summer with camp leaders to try to persuade them to take offers of allotments of farmland if the refugees would return to Helmand, but nearly all of them refused. Instead, many new refugees from the fighting arrived in the past year; nationwide, 33,000 people were newly displaced by the fighting in November, according to U.N. figures.

Camp representatives counter-proposed that they would be willing to settle on farmland in Kabul province instead. Mohammad Ibrahim, the leader of the Nasaji Bagrami camp, said they were promised that efforts would be made to find international donors to finance that, but nothing came of it.

Even after losing one of his sons, Mohammad said he had no intention of returning south. "I would rather freeze to death than get bombed again," he said.

In an interview last February during the height of last winter's crisis, the head of the United Nations' humanitarian-coordination agency, Aidan O'Leary, said emergency aid was not a long-term answer.

"It will keep them alive, but we can't afford to lose sight that there has to be a better solution going forward, not to be dealing with this situation every time winter comes about," he said.

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