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Afghanistan: Refugees Returning To The Blighted Shomali Plains

By Laura Winter

Across Afghanistan, refugees face the task of first finding and then rebuilding homes that were destroyed in the war. One of the hardest-hit areas was the vast Shomali Plains that spreads out to the north of the capital, Kabul. The plains were once fertile and home to thousands. But it served as the front line between warring forces of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, and now it's mostly a desolate no-man's land. Reporting from the once famed pottery-making town of Istalif, RFE/RL spoke with returning refugees about how they were going to bring their town back to life and put roofs over their heads before the winter snows arrive in just over a month.

Istalif, Afghanistan; 11 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the Afghan village of Istalif, in the burned-out Shomali Plains north of Kabul, a roof is a rarity. At the town's heart, shops that once sold Istalif's famous ceramic pots are nothing more than crumbling mud-brick remains of a once-prosperous past.

Looking above the bazaar, up the hillside to what was clearly the densely populated center of town, sunlight illuminates bedroom walls blackened by flame. Many homes are scarred by holes big enough to drive a car through.

Twelve-year-old Asil said it took his family hours of examining dozens of crumbling walls and broken door frames before they found the one sign that told them which house was theirs. "Everything was burned. Everything was burned. The whole village was burned. It was difficult to find my home. I found my home by finding my garden. Our garden was near to our house. There was a green tree that was in our garden. I recognized that tree. It was a green tree. And that's how I found my home. When I saw that tree, I walked toward it. I knew then I was in my house."

The boy's father admits that the destruction was so overwhelming that this family of 10 wanted to go back to Kabul. But then with so many other families rebuilding around them, they decided to try and remake their lives.

Some 3,000 refugee families have returned to Istalif to find what's left of their homes and to rebuild -- hopefully before the snow comes.

The town suffers from the same fate of so many of the front-line villages: total destruction. But what makes Istalif special is its stunning view over the Shomali Plain and the villages below. That view and the town's proximity to the Afghan capital Kabul inspired former King Zahir Shah to build a large summer house on one of the more prominent ridges.

Today, in the garden of the former king's house, a Taliban tank remains with its guns trained on the highway below. A handful of Afghan National Army soldiers now keeps watch over the tank and the burned-out ruins.

Control of this strategic location changed hands no fewer than seven times during the last three years the Taliban ruled Kabul. As the soldiers moved in, the people either fled or were arrested by the Taliban.

Hedayatullah is the base manager for the Afghan nongovernmental organization Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development and is responsible for helping refugees rebuild their homes. He said it has only been in recent months that families have deemed it safe enough to return: "This district, the first of March and after that, was completely empty of the people. All the houses were destroyed here. Maybe 50 families, or not more, before March were here. After March they started to repatriate. Now more than 3,000 families came here. They started to rebuild their houses."

Hedayatullah said his NGO, which operates under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has identified about 1,000 families requiring assistance to build their homes.

Each beneficiary gets 24 roof beams, two window frames, two door frames, a latrine, toolkits, and glass for the windows. The people must make their own bricks, by hand. The local hardware stores are doing a booming business in nails.

According to another resident, Noorullah, the only problem with finishing his house is time and money. It takes two to three months to build a house. It's now the beginning of November and the snow is already capping the mountain peaks. He has just over a month to get a roof over the heads of the 24 people that make up his family. "We have no money. We have to work hard. This is all we have. This is our house. This is all we have [a carpet]. We will have to cover everything so that we will not die from the cold."

Noorullah is relatively lucky. He has the funds to shell out the $6 a day to pay for masons to make and lay the bricks for his house. But Hedayatullah fears that those families that have not yet started building may have to pull up the stakes of their tents this winter and seek the shelter of the cities. "They must leave here. There is no way to live here. Because they don't have a roof. They do not have food for the winter. They don't have wood and other fuel to warm their houses. [They] told me this is the only decision we must take, to leave here."

Their plight is made worse by the fact that most of the men and many of the boys here must put aside building their houses in order to feed their families by working as day laborers.

While his father works as a day laborer in a nearby town, Asil makes his daily $1 a day by hauling beams and window frames from a local NGO distribution center. Asil's family has not started to rebuild their house. But Asil says he still has hope his family will manage to get a roof over their heads before winter. He said he is happy to be home in Istalif: "I want all of our people to come back. I want our village [full] of people like it was before. That would make me happy. I want the schools rebuilt. And I hope we get some more assistance. And I want the houses to be rebuilt. When our life gets better, then I will go to school." Now all he wants is for life to get back to the way it was when he was younger.