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Afghanistan: Expats In The West Ponder A Return Home

After 22 years of war and chaos, Afghanistan has lost a significant proportion of its educated people. Those who have fled to Western Europe or the U.S. in search of better lives now face the decision of whether to return to Afghanistan and take part in the reconstruction of their home country.

Prague, 17 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's future hinges on the implementation of a UN agreement for an interim government, which is due to take control of Kabul in five days.

The success of this new government, however, will depend on more than just signatures. In the end, it will be ordinary Afghans who will have to do the hard work of rebuilding the country.

A significant amount of this effort is likely to fall to the 800,000 Afghans living abroad in Europe and the United States. Among other Afghans, they are the ones seen as having the education and skills needed for the reconstruction effort.

But while many of these expatriates express concern about what is happening in their country, they are torn over whether to return to Afghanistan permanently.

Rajma Momand is a 22-year-old computer software specialist who was born in Afghanistan but has spent most of her life living in Germany. She says she hopes to go to Afghanistan early next year to work for an aid organization. She says her feelings are not uncommon among other young Afghans in Germany.

"Most of us want to go back. Some of us are medical students. Some are going to be teachers. Some are doing stuff in economics. [But] we still don't know if we want to go back forever."

Momand's parents fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of the late 1970s and 1980s. Her father continued his studies in the city of Bonn and her mother found work as a nurse. Momand says both of her parents have strong ties to Afghanistan and feel compelled to return to offer their professional skills. But she says many young Afghans feel too attached to their European identity to move permanently to Afghanistan.

"They feel like Europeans. They say their parents are Afghans. I don't think these people will go back. But probably they will help the country. They will help Afghanistan, because you can also help from Germany."

Momand says even though many young Afghans have dim memories of their country, they still want to take an active role in reconstruction.

"But time after time, [we] recognized that we love our country. Even though we feel as Germans, we also feel as Afghans. So now we are trying our best to bring peace to Afghanistan and later to help to build up the country again. But time after time, I find out that some of us, or most of us, will probably go back -- at least for a short while."

Muhammad David left Afghanistan for southern California 20 years ago. A pilot for United Airlines, David has built a comfortable life for his family of five. But he says Afghans such as himself did not leave the country by choice, and should not be seen as traitors to the Afghan cause by those in the new government.

"The Afghans who live outside [the country, either] close to the border or in more distant places -- these are Afghans who didn't leave Afghanistan by their own will. Political problems and the communist invasion made us leave Afghanistan, but not because we wanted to. Governments in Afghanistan should understand that we didn't want to leave Afghanistan. The future government has to understand that our people have been away for 20-23 years. And the future government has to understand this and find a solution. The conditions should be appropriate [for those who want to return] as it is for each Afghan in Afghanistan."

David says that many older Afghans who raised families outside the country will return if and when a democratic government has been put in place.

"I cannot be a hundred percent [sure], but I believe a large number of Afghans [living outside the country] would go back if the conditions were appropriate. Even in the least-appropriate conditions, they want to go back. But one main condition for Afghans to return is a regime or government that will accept the different points of view -- the different wishes people have for freedom and democracy. We cannot go back to a country where there are no democratic values."

David says that Afghans abroad can help their country even if they do not relocate to Afghanistan permanently. He says Afghans are organizing and participating in the country's reconstruction from all over the world.

"I want to add that we are living in a world that's connected, and that [whether you live] in another country is not so important. If Afghans can really participate and help their people in Afghanistan from wherever they are, they can go back for good or just temporarily. But the main condition is a political system that would attract people."

David wants to return to Afghanistan no matter how difficult it may be. He says he owes it to those who stayed in the country enduring endless chaos. "Their blood and tears made my life possible," he says. "Now I must go back and help in whatever way I can."