View photos of Camp Shahraqi Mawjirin.

Camp Shahraqi Mawjirin

The salt-frosted desert outside the settlement curves into the horizon, as though the refugees here needed another reminder that they live on the edge of the earth. We walk out of the camp and head northeast, toward where the world ends.

A hundred or so paces away from the last hut of crumbling mud brick, a colorful, shiny playground rises out of the barren earth, like a twisted joke played on the 145 families dumped in this forlorn wasteland.

Because who needs a playground, asks Fateh Mohammad, his mouth contorted into a warped smile, when there is no food? Who needs a playground when the houses are falling apart?

Who needs these two red and blue metal slides, four swings, two soccer goals, and a seesaw, Fateh Mohammad demands as the smile fades from this man’s sun-browned face completely, when the children are dying?

The cemetery is not far from the playground; you find it easily if you follow the curve of the earth along the periphery of the camp.

There are 10 graves. They are unmarked, elongated mounds of clay. Seven belong to children. It is not difficult to tell them apart: They are half the size of the adult graves. They are decorated with rocks, cheap trinkets, rainbows of broken glass bracelets, a shard of a plastic salad bowl. The salt that cakes the desert floor percolates to the surface of the mounds above the dead children, like dry tears.

The one on the southern edge belongs to Fateh Mohammad’s son, Amir. He died last winter; he was two years old. He had been sick, incessantly coughing the frightening, dark cough of poor children from the slums.

Next to his grave is the grave of Nurkhan, the grandson of Meher Ahbuddin, the village elder who wears a watch on each wrist. Nurkhan died around the same time as Amir; he was 4. Meher Ahbuddin thinks the weather killed him. It was a cold winter, so cold that the generator-operated pump froze, and the refugees had to collect ice from frozen puddles on the road and melt it in their pots for drinking.

“We had no warm clothes,” Meher Ahbuddin explains. “One morning we woke up, and he did not.” Ajabkhan, the grandson of Abdul Samat, a tall man with a tribal tattoo on his right wrist that looks like Tamashek writing, is buried two graves away. Ajabkhan was a year and a half when he died, of some disease no one can explain to me.

The cemetery is marked by a tall, uneven wooden pole flying a green flag, planted there by the refugees. The playground is marked by a large billboard, planted there by government contractors.

“Title of Project: Creating Livelihood Opportunities for Refugees in North Afghanistan. Project Code: 02 AFR. Component: Play Ground and safe Play area,” the billboard proclaims in blue letters. “Donor: Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (United States of America).”

What the billboard really says is that the international aid that is supposed to help rebuild Afghanistan is tragically failing.

I came here from Mazar-e-Sharif, about 15 miles to the south. Like Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif has blossomed in the eight years since my first visit: Internet cafés jostle for space with fancy pizza parlors, old turbaned men sell cell phone scratch cards on street corners, scarlet and pink roses bloom in the medians, and there is electricity most of the time. Today, many Afghan cities are like this.

But much of rural Afghanistan, like Camp Shahraqi Mawjirin, has been frozen in time. Eight years after the U.S.-led invasion pushed the Taliban out of most of the country, child mortality here remains second only to Sierra Leone’s. Fourteen children die here every half hour, largely from preventable causes. Two-thirds of Afghans still don’t have access to potable water, and slightly more than a quarter of all adults can read and write.

Is there something inevitable, then, about the return of the Taliban to Afghanistan’s northern farmlands? “When there is no work, and no money, young people are pushed to theft, to robbery, to joining the Taliban,” Abdul Ansari, one of the imams at the Blue Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif, told me the other day. Partly because NATO and the international donors have focused most of their attention on Afgahnistan’s troubled south, and partly because of the extraordinary corruption of the kleptocracy in Kabul, the international recovery effort has barely reached the villages — and the projects that did make it here often came in the form of twisted, absurd donations like the playground in Camp Shahraqi Mawjirin.

The camp is home to 145 Afghan families who, three years ago, heeded President Hamid Karzai’s call to return from exile after living in Pakistan for more than 20 years. They were enticed by promises of housing and jobs. The government gave each family a small plot of land in this salt desert — land that will never bear anything but rocks and some sparse blades of grey weeds. The United States donated the playground, a clinic, and a school for boys.

The clinic is a neat concrete building painted pale blue, with a staircase and a ramp, thoughtfully installed for wheelchair-bound patients. (I try to explain the ramp to Meher Ahbuddin, the settlement elder. He stares at me blankly. Who here could ever afford a wheelchair?) The clinic is absolutely bare: There is no medicine, and no medicine cabinets to hold it; there are no chairs, no cots, no desks in the doctors’ offices. There are no doctors — just like at the school, there are no teachers. White curlicues of peeling paint lie on desks and chairs. The classrooms have an eerie feel to them, as though the school were the site of a recent nuclear catastrophe.

“It’s like we live in a cemetery,” Abdul Samat says, crushing a bit of paint with the toe of his sandal.

The main problem is that there are no jobs, Abdul Samat tells me. The nearest village is about an hour and a half away by foot, and it is almost as poor as the camp. There are some jobs in Mazar-e-Sharif, but the trip to the city is 80 cents and 30 minutes over unpaved roads in a van so crowded that some men end up standing up in the open door, grabbing onto the roof and the windows as the dusty wind worries at the loose tails of their shalwar kameez. Few in Camp Shahraqi Mawjirin can afford the ride.

Because there is no work, there is also no food. People bring discarded dry bread from the village, soak it in boiling water, and eat the glop. Boiling the water is tricky, too. There is no firewood, and the women make brittle cooking fires with the dried grass their children gather in the desert.

I think of these children when the villagers offer to bring me tea. As politely as I can, I say that I’m not thirsty.

At the entrance to the settlement, I see some men with pushcarts shoveling rock. Meher Ahbuddin says they are trying to build a road.

But to me it looks as though they are working simply not to be idle in the motionless, dead desert. When they spot our car, from a quarter of a mile away, they stop and watch, leaning on their shovels. We are a wonder, an apparition. No one ever comes here in a car.

This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

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Anna Badkhen

Anna Badkhen has covered wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Chechnya and Kashmir. She has reported extensively from Iraq since 2003. Her reporting has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The National, FRONTLINE/World, Truthdig, and Salon. Her book, "A War Reporter's Pantry," will be published in January 2011 by Free Press/Simon&Schuster. She lives in Massachusetts.