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Afghanistan: Refugees Returning Faster Than Expected

The conflicts in Afghanistan have produced the most refugees of any country in the world in the past three decades. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says that half the total number of Afghan refugees they expected to return to Afghanistan in the whole year have already come back in the last eight weeks.

Kabul, 25 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A quarter of a century of conflict turned millions of Afghans into refugees. The largest portion, as the exodus peaked in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion, about 4 million people, went to neighboring Pakistan. Up to 1.5 million went to Iran, while others, according to UNHCR spokesman Yusuf Hassan, dispersed throughout the world.

"Afghanistan is the world's largest refugee-producing country. There are 5 million people out there and many of them in the neighboring countries but some of them scattered in 70 countries across the world. So it will take a bit of time before all of the are able to return back."

After the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime was overthrown last November, the pro-Western Afghan interim government, the countries playing host to the refugees and the international community have encouraged Afghans to return to their homeland.

Hassan said that the UNHCR, which coordinates the aid to refugees from the UN and scores of other organizations, began a repatriation program in March. The numbers returning, he said, are far more than predicted.

"We had planned to return 800,000 this year, but we are now reaching the 50th percent[age] point already eight weeks into this program. So we believe this repatriation program is shaping up to be one of the largest and fastest in recent years."

Hassan said despite years in refugee camps, Afghans want to return to rebuild their homes and their lives in their native towns and villages.

"Almost all of them are returning to their original homes apart from people who are going to areas that are insecure, for example where there's still some fighting or some conflict. Sixty percent of the people have returned to rural areas and about 39-38 percent are going to cities like Kabul, Herat, Mazar, Kunduz, and Kandahar."

The returnees get a small amount of money and essential items to being reconstructing their homes, said Hassan.

"We have an initial package, a cash allowance of $20 per person, 150 kilograms of wheat, some blankets, tents, soap, Jerry cans (gasoline containers) and so on. And then we have a second assistance package which is shelter. We hope to assist up to half a million of the neediest people whose houses have been destroyed to rebuild their houses -- a two-bedroom house with a toilet. We would provide the beams, the windows, doors, the frames, and the tools to build the houses. And then the third assistance, which is again available once they go back to their villages, which is seeds and tools so that they can start to clear the land and once again grow crops."

The aid agencies also deal with hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced by the conflicts. One of the biggest recent projects was to help around 15,000 refugees who had sought shelter in the abandoned Soviet Embassy in Kabul.

They had been driven out of their homes, starting in 1993, by fierce fighting that enveloped their villages on the Shomali plains, north of Kabul. The area was a battleground between the Taliban forces trying to capture Kabul and their opponents of the Northern Alliance forces. The Taliban suffered two big defeats in the Shomali plains when villagers helped the Northern Alliance forces.

When the Taliban finally gained control of most of the country, they took a savage revenge on the inhabitants of the Shomali area. Men were executed, women were raped, and the area was leveled in a way reminiscent of the barbaric methods of Genghis Khan. Most of the houses were completely destroyed and the fruit orchards which were famed as "the garden of Kabul," and which provided incomes for many of the dwellers, were pulled up by the roots or burned.

The displaced persons, many families with no husband or father, lived in horribly cramped conditions in the Soviet Embassy compound, a huge place of Soviet-style apartment blocks which housed the top military leaders and officials of the Soviet occupying forces and their families. The place has suffered so much destruction and looting that only the shells of the buildings remain.

Two weeks ago the program to return the refugees living there was completed. But already about 1,000 new refugees have moved in hoping to get help to resettle. They also live in dreadfully cramped conditions. In one room about eight meters by four meters, 10 families, around 50 people, sleep on floors and share a choking fire built of rubbish to try to warm themselves.

These people also claim to be originally from the Shomali plains but were living elsewhere when the UNHCR compiled a register of people living at the embassy in January that they would help. One of the inhabitants of the cramped room is Aranghul, a mother of four daughters and a son, who was widowed by the civil war and also lost two of her children, who died of malnutrition. She is from one of the villages on the Shomali plain and was ejected by the Taliban.

"We live hand to mouth and I sometimes do laundering work for other people and some of my children sell water and do menial jobs. That's how we survive. When we were in our village the conditions of life were good and we could earn money, but after we were thrown out by the Taliban we at first received some aid and assistance from UNHCR and some of our own people, tradesmen, helped us but right now we don't receive anything. Some of the families were shifted to their villages in Shomali district by the UNHCR but some families are still here."

Hamida, another widow with four daughters aged 12 to 20, says that her life as a refugee is full of despair as she has no man to help out. But she is convinced that life will be better in her village, even though she does not know how she will rebuild her home. "I hope that the situation will improve and get better and we want to go back to our place and I want to work, I want my children also to find a job and to work for their country."

Thirteen-year-old Wahid has been here for three years with his mother, a widow, two brothers and two sisters. His mother is sick and he is the family's sole bread-winner, selling drinks of water from a pail in local bazaars and sometimes he washes cars and earns, that way, a few cents per day.

He says that he would like to go to school but cannot because he must work and collect pieces of discarded plastic and rubber that the refugees burn to try to combat the chill of the nights and for cooking. He cannot remember the last time he played. "I don't have time to play and do those kinds of things because I am a poor boy and I think about my family all the time and how to feed them. Some of the people use tar as fuel and we usually collect some pieces of plastic to burn, so I don't have time to play."

But the UNHCR and other agencies are ignoring the request for help of the new embassy inhabitants.

Hassan said the people who are there now are people who have moved in since the registration and do not qualify for help. Aid agencies say that some may not even be genuine refugees from Shomali but people who hope to get the cash help being distributed.

"As far as the Soviet compound repatriation program is concerned, we have finished that one. We will be starting next week the return of 150,000 people back to the Shomali from other parts of Kabul. Once we have finished that we will also look at other needy people."

Those living in the remains of the embassy certainly look destitute and tell their stories in a way that seems truthful and pathetic. Wahid said what he wants: "My greatest dream is to go back to our village and to help my village and my people there. I have lost my father and I am the only person who earns money and a livelihood for the family and it would be my greatest pleasure to go to my village."

He hopes the aid agencies will help to make his dream come true.