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No Refuge From Misery For Afghanistan's Displaced


Gulsom, a 34-year-old mother of seven, has been living in the Bamiyan caves for more than five years.

Gulsom, a 34-year-old mother of seven, has been living in the Bamiyan caves for more than five years.

To the casual observer the thousands of caves that dot the sandstone cliffs of the ancient Afghan city of Bamiyan hearken to another era, when monks visiting the region's famous Buddha statues took residence there.

But for hundreds of Afghans, the caves represent their current reality.

The new residents have been forced to seek refuge in the caves, unable to return to areas they originally fled due to insecurity and the destruction of their former homes and villages.

Upon their return to their native lands they have found it a struggle to survive, with basic essentials such as food, shelter, and health care in short supply.

One is Gulsom, a 34-year-old mother of seven who has lived in the Bamiyan caves for over five years.

Gulsom, who only has one name, returned to Bamiyan after she and her children were deported from Iran.

After travelling to her former village and finding it deserted and completely destroyed, Gulsom followed the footsteps of hundreds of other returnees and displaced families in the region and moved into a cave.

Abandoned By The Authorities

She claims that she has received little help from local authorities or aid agencies and, with her children having been taken away and her husband deceased, she has been left to fend for herself.

To get by, Gulsom scavenges for firewood and food and travels to a stream kilometers from her home to collect water for drinking and bathing.

That cave that Gulsom calls home is approximately 2 meters wide, with only a slanted wooden door to protect it from the elements.

The only light in the room comes from a hole in a wall that has been sealed by plastic. There is no toilet, she says.

Gulsom lists few possessions. She owns an old rug that she sleeps on along with some clothes and a few rusted utensils she uses to cook and eat with.

"I have no work here," she says. "I stay hungry a lot of times and cry during the night. I beg to earn some money and work for other people to get something to live off. If there is something, I eat. Otherwise I just stay in this cave."

Struggling To Survive

Upon her return from Iran, Gulsom says she struggled to feed her seven young children and delivered them to a local NGO that promised her they would be taken to an orphanage.

That was five yeas ago, she says. She has not heard from them since and does not know where they are.

The local branch of Afghanistan's Department of Refugees and Repatriation says with help from several foreign NGOs it has been able to provide temporary shelter to over 100 cave dwellers.

But they admit that more than 300 are still living without support in the caves.

Gulsom says many living in the caves are struggling to survive.

Although aid agencies drop food supplies during the harsh winters, she insists that local authorities and international aid agencies have failed them -- and she is not alone.

In its latest report on the internally displaced in Afghanistan, Amnesty International documents that this problem spreads far beyond Bamiyan.

The rights organization calls on the Afghan government to do more to protect the community of internally displaced persons (IDPs) throughout the country, which it numbers at about 500,000.

IDP Numbers Rising Sharply

Despite efforts to address the issue, the number of displaced Afghans is sharply rising, according to the report, with 400 new people displaced every day.

This failure, in turn, appears to be having a negative effect on efforts to repatriate the millions of Afghan refugees living abroad.

The UNCHR has listed the Afghan government's failure in providing basic services to returning refugees and internally displaced persons as a major contributing factor to a sharp drop in the number of Afghans refugees returning home.

Amnesty International researcher Horia Mosadiq attributes such failures to a lack of political will and strategy on the part of the Afghan government.

"The evidence that Amnesty International collected is showing that the Afghan government is, unfortunately, stopping the aid agencies from delivering aid to the [IDP] community around the country," she said

[They do this because they] fear that [otherwise] it may create permanency, encourage more people to join the IDP community and, at the same time, politically it doesn't look bright."

Even with its limited resources, Musadiq says in Amnesty International's latest report that Afghanistan should be able to provide aid to its displaced citizens.

But this, she says, would require that the authorities use the international aid available to them and remove conditions on humanitarian assistance.

For people like Gulsom, it appears that any form of help would go a long way toward alleviating their plight.

"I only wish to have a home, good enough so that I can live in peace," she says.

"So that when I die I will be buried in peace like other Muslims. That is all I ask for. God, please save me from this life."

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan's Mustafa Sarwar contributed to this report
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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