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Afghanistan: UN Refugee Chief Hopes Displaced Northern Afghans May Return Home Soon

The head of the United Nations refugee agency in Afghanistan has just completed a visit to the north of the country, where he spoke with the factional leaders of troops that have been fighting in parts of six different provinces. UNHCR Afghan mission chief Filippo Grandi told RFE/RL about his talks with ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and the ethnic Tajik commander Mohammad Atta. From Kabul, RFE/RL reports on how the meetings could help speed the return of internally displaced Afghans from the north.

Kabul, 10 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Filippo Grandi, the UNHCR mission chief in Afghanistan, has returned from a four-day visit to the north of the country where he investigated how factional fighting has been affecting the return of internally displaced Afghans.

Grandi met with the leaders of three former Northern Alliance factions that have been battling each other in recent weeks. They are ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum from the Junbesh-i-Milli-yi-Islami political party, ethnic Tajik commander Ustad Mohammad Atta of the Panjshiri-dominated Jamiat-i-Islami, and ethnic Hazara commander Sayedi of Hezb-i-Wahdat.

Grandi told RFE/RL that he has received "verbal assurances" from all three northern leaders that they will put pressure on their commanders to let the United Nations continue its programs helping refugees and internally displaced persons return to their homes. "I met General Dostum and Ustad Atta, and also Sayedi, who is the chief of the Hezb-i-Wahdat, to discuss these points in general terms. And they told me that we could resume activities in all these areas. They could ensure the safety of our operations. And they even went as far as saying that, in their opinion, internally displaced people who left the north or left those areas [of fighting] could return," Grandi said.

Grandi said the three leaders told him they all are suspicious of ethnic Pashtuns who have been fleeing their homes in the north. "They have very strong opinions about many of the people who flee. They think that many of them may be linked to the Taliban regime. I told them that it is possible that some of them are, but we cannot presume guilt until somebody is proven guilty. They agreed to that. And they agreed that also innocent people should be helped to return to their homes. They really opened the door to collaboration on this issue," Grandi said.

But Grandi said it is still too early to know exactly when, and if, the promised cooperation from the northern warlords will materialize. "How and when, it is difficult to tell. But my office in Mazar is working with the authorities and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to try to follow up on that meeting and see what practical measures we can take, together with [Dostum and Atta], to better inform IDPs [internally displaced persons] in the south and to even try to have measures for them to return," Grandi said.

The UNHCR chief said experience has taught him to avoid being overly optimistic about progress for returning refugees on the basis of a few individual interviews. "I've worked many years in this business. I think that success in these issues is not measured in a matter of days. Success is measured over a period of months. So I think we have to reserve our judgement until we see positive results," Grandi said.

The UN has already warned Dostum and Atta that their regions risk losing promised international aid because of ongoing violence. Those warnings were issued after the European Union compiled a list of seven violent incidents against foreign aid workers in the north last month, including the gang rape of a female French aid worker.

Grandi said that Dostum, Atta, and Sayedi were all eager for him to announce an improvement of the situation in the north. "What I told these three people is that UNHCR is an organization whose mandate is to ensure protection of IDPs and refugees, and especially to find solutions to their plight. So I found them quite cooperative. Of course, now we have to see. They told me, for example, 'Tell everyone that everything is secure.' And I said, 'I will say that when we are there and we can see that,'" Grandi said.

Grandi's visit to the north included stops in Mazar-i-Sharif, as well as the provinces of Baghlan and Konduz. He said the security situation there does appear to be improving. He said many ethnic Pashtuns from the north that are still close to their homes want to return. "In the eastern part of the north, say Konduz [or Baghlan provinces], we have seen an increase in returns of Pashtuns from Pakistan, for example, or from eastern Afghanistan. Those [northern provinces] are areas in which, evidently, a certain stability is now prevailing compared to the western part of the north," Grandi said.

But Grandi also said the situation in the northwest provinces of Faryab and Sar-i-Pul also has improved since late last month when there were reports of entire settlements of ethnic Pashtuns being burned to the ground. Indeed, Grandi now says he thinks some reports of violence near the town of Sar-i-Pul were exaggerated. "Towards the end of June, there were reports about renewed conflict and violence in some areas of the northwest, in the provinces of Faryab, Sar-i-Pul, and Balkh. Pending an assessment of the situation, the UN decided to pull out international staff from [Faryab's provincial capital of] Maimana and to suspend missions [aimed at returning displaced residents of] Sar-i-Pul and southern Balkh [Province]," Grandi said.

The UNHCR chief said an early assessment from the northwest has now been completed by the UN. "I am pleased to say that the assessment has now been made and that we will resume operations. The clearance for resumption was given [on 8 July] by the UN because there is tension, but the situation is calm enough for us to continue the operations," Grandi said.

Still, Grandi said UN officials will remain vigilant in order to inform internally displaced people quickly if security in the northwest deteriorates once again. "We will continue to make assessments together with the [Afghan] authorities about the security situation in the areas from which IDPs originate. And we will continue to pass this information on to the IDPs," Grandi said.

Grandi also is downplaying earlier reports to the UN that some 150 families had been burned out of their homes at a settlement near Sar-i-Pul earlier this month. He said a preliminary UN mission aimed at verifying those reports has concluded that those families had fled because of fears of possible ethnic harassment. But he said it now appears that many of those families are returning to find their homes intact, and that the situation in Sar-i-Pul province is normalizing. "They were displaced more as a [matter of self-preservation] than as a result of actual fighting. And they have now returned -- most of them. So that situation of displacement is resolved. However, what I also told [Dostum and Atta] is that this proves something. That people are so scared by now that even the threat of fighting displaces them, not fighting alone," Grandi said.

When asked to assess the overall security situation in the north, Grandi told RFE/RL that problems seem to be "localized" ones. He said it would be inappropriate to use the term "ethnic cleansing" to describe harassment faced by Pashtuns and other groups in the north. "Sometimes, this harassment has been ethnically based. Sometimes it has been linked to property issues -- land ownership -- so, nonethnically based. As a matter of fact, civilians have suffered from harassment irrespective of their ethnic affiliation. So it is a bit broader than just harassment of Pashtuns, although we have seen harassment of Pashtuns, especially in the early part of the year. And this is why many people have fled to the south and to the east," Grandi said.

While Grandi was visiting three northern Afghan provinces last weekend and earlier this week, a delegation of Afghan officials also was conducting its own investigation. That four-man team is led by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's personal adviser to the Ministry of Religious and Tribal Affairs, Ghulam Mohyoddin Baloch.

The Afghan delegation has not yet completed its planned visits to all six northern provinces that have seen recent factional fighting.