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October 10, 2001
Millions of people in Afghanistan not only belong to the Third World, in many ways they belong to the third century.
At the refugee camp near Khaja Bahaod Din, a huge herd of camels make their way languidly down a dusty slope to the Pyandzh River. Boys with reed switches alternate between coaxing them with sing-song cadences and hearty smacks on the hump, which the camels don't seem to feel or mind.
In the village a half a mile away, mud walls line the streets where men atop donkeys greet each other with a hand to the chest and an affectionate, "Salam Alekoem."
Women in flowing robes cast their eyes downward in order not to offend, and children play with whatever is at hand. Two men make bricks in a dug-out hole by mixing straw with dirt and cow dung. In the distance, a figure separates wheat from chaff by throwing pitchfork-fulls into the breeze to let the wind make the selection. If it weren't for the Russian-made trucks and the occasional T-55 tank, Khaja appears to be transported straight out of Old Testament times.
The refugees have come to this place from all over the country for dozens of years, fleeing war and drought and the harsh hand of the most recent government. But most recently they come from nearby areas dominated by the Taliban. They fear American attacks. And they fear being forcibly conscripted to fight for the Taliban.
"They took all the young men in our village and sent them to the south," one man said. "They said they must defend against the American attack."
When asked if the young men refused, his reply was matter-of-fact: "They would be killed."
As with anywhere, a camera attracts a crowd. An ABCNEWS crew was quickly surrounded by a dozen men, most of whom raised their hands when asked who there had escaped the mandatory recruitment. One man said he agreed to go, then ran away with his family that very night.
They also said the Taliban would kill any older man who was too old to fight but could not contribute a gun to the cause. According to the refugees, the soldiers were moving into the villages and setting up artillery and tank emplacements.
During the years of war against the Soviets, Afghans became the world's largest group of refugees, with more than 6 million displaced according to the United Nations, more than one-half the world's total. Now, an estimated 10,000 a day are fleeing their villages to places like this camp.
Afghanistan, a harsh and foreboding place of historically fierce fighters, is known as the graveyard of other nations' armies. Forgetting, of course, that most of the war victims buried here are Afghans themselves.
Whatever happens next, the refugees hope for something more than justice.
"We will be with anyone who brings us peace," one man said, answering a question about whether his people would fight with or against the American soldiers. "If they want to help us have peace, we will be with them. We are tired of war."