By Amie Ferris-Rotman
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Gulam recalls the evening she fled her home in northern Afghanistan on foot, running with her teen daughters under the cloak of darkness to avoid cooking a dinner for 20 Taliban insurgents.
"This Talib burst through my door and demanded I cook for them. But I had no money, and I was scared they would take my daughters," Gulam said, pulling a stripy shawl tightly around her gaunt and wrinkled face.
That night six months ago, Gulam and her family joined the half a million Afghans who are internally displaced, mostly from conflict but also natural disasters, a number which has been steadily increasing since 2008.
Intensifying violence as NATO combat troops prepare to leave by end-2014 and a poor economic outlook in the face of shrinking aid could spell a humanitarian disaster for Afghanistan, where a third already live beneath the poverty line.
"Security in the country is terrible. Day by day there are more of us," Gulam told Reuters while visiting the U.N. compound in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of northern Balkh province.
She left her mountainous village for a district on Afghanistan's border with Uzbekistan, where she now lives in rented accommodation. Unable to find work, the widow receives meagerly handouts from male relatives. She says her husband was killed in an insurgent attack.
A FORGOTTEN PEOPLE
U.N. Humanitarian Affairs chief Valerie Amos, meeting internal refugees in the country's north late last week, warned that their plight could worsen when the enormous sums being poured into the country as part of the U.S.-led war and nation building effort disappear.
"We are worried that people will be forgotten. We are worried that the sort of resources we need on the financial side are not going to be available," Amos told Reuters.
She cited a recent World Bank report, which says that up to 10 percent of the Afghan workforce has benefited from aid. "Thousands are at risk of losing their jobs," she warned, saying that once the aid dries up, there will be more unemployed or even internally displaced.
"We are going to need more assistance to avoid a disaster," Director of Public Health for Balkh, Mirwais Rabi, told Amos at a meeting of Balkh officials.
Amnesty International says 400 Afghans become internally displaced every day, and the organization predicts this number will swell.
"It will be like when the Russians left all over again," said Delbar, who left her home in northern Jowzjan province eight months ago after insurgents threatened her sons with violence when they refused to join them.
After the Soviets' humiliating defeat in their decade-long war against mujahideen fighters in 1989, Moscow continued to prop up the Communist government of Mohammad Najibullah.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed two years later, the aid vanished, Najibullah was ousted in 1992 and civil war engulfed Afghanistan.
NOWHERE TO GO
The first six months of 2011 -- a year that saw civilian casualties rise for a fifth straight year -- saw tremendous upheaval. The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates nearly 100,000 people became internal refugees in that period alone.
Applications by Afghans seeking asylum also reached their highest number in a decade, U.N. figures showed in January. Most were from those seeking work abroad.
Even in the capital Kabul, often the first point of call for foreign aid and where the Afghan rich boast palatial homes, there are 35,000 internal refugees living in 30 makeshift camps.
"We can't go home as the fighting is so bad, but on the other hand we have no way to make a living here," said Abdul Samad, an elder from eastern Laghman province at the Parwan-e-Se camp near the centre of Kabul.
Most of the 110 families at the camp, where the stench of human waste wafts above barefoot children playing in rubbish by mud homes, have applied for housing and land as part of a government scheme.
While they wait out a time frame of usually five years, they have odd jobs carting food items for 15 Afghanis an hour (28 cents) and foreign NGOs provide some food and shelter.
"Our neighbors won't let us in anymore," Samad sighed, referring to Iran and Pakistan, where millions of Afghan refugees who fled the Soviet war and the Taliban still live.
His long face downturned, he added: "So no doubt we will grow in size."
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)