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Afghanistan: Kabul's Refugees Feel Passed Over By International Aid

Refugees in Kabul say they feel neglected by international aid groups, which are admittedly more concerned with helping returnees in outlying areas. The belief is that refugees and displaced persons in the capital have better access to jobs and opportunities than do new arrivals in rural and poorer areas. That may be the case in general, but a visit to Kabul's refugee camps nevertheless reveals appalling conditions. RFE/RL spoke with aid workers and refugees about the specific problems returnees face in the Afghan capital.

Kabul, 19 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The capital, Kabul, remains the destination of choice for returning Afghan refugees and displaced persons.

Of the estimated 1.7 million refugees that have returned to the country this year, around one-third have chosen to resettle in Kabul and the surrounding province. These include many people who have never lived in Kabul but who have come because they perceive better economic and security conditions.

But Kabul's refugees appear to be falling through the cracks of international assistance.

Bebe Khurd, a 40-year-old mother of nine, is originally from Jalalabad but chose to return to Kabul after she and her family left a refugee camp in Pakistan earlier this year. She thought conditions in the capital would be better for her and her four sons and five daughters. Instead, she said, living conditions are worse than what she left behind in Pakistan. "We thought that when the Americans came to Afghanistan, everything would improve. But we have the same problem that we had in the past. Nothing has changed. Our husbands don't have any jobs, and our children are in a very bad condition. We left Afghanistan because of the repression of the Taliban. But we haven't received any assistance and aid from any organization," Khurd said.

Her lament is commonplace among Kabul's refugees and reflects a conscious policy by international aid organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to give preference to returnees choosing to live in rural or outlying areas. Aid groups reason that refugees returning to Kabul have better access to jobs and resources and are not as desperately in need of assistance.

The UNHCR spokeswoman in Kabul, Maki Shinohara, explained the policy. "The UNHCR is concentrating on helping out people in rural communities because those are the areas where there is less attention and less international presence, and so forth," Shinohara said.

But a trip to a few of Kabul's refugee camps, not far from the city center, reveals men, women, and children living in appalling conditions. An 11-year-old girl, Maryiam, lives at a makeshift camp in the eastern part of the city. She held a baby in her arms as she spoke about her plight. "Our living conditions are very bad. We don't have a place to live in. We are close to dying under the tents from the cold weather. As you can see, there are many children here, and they cannot cope with the cold weather. We don't have any source of income," Maryiam said.

It's not clear where these refugees can go for assistance. The Kabul municipal authorities say they have no money and are in no position to offer aid. The refugees could normally be expected to find work, but the city's economy has been slow to absorb the new arrivals. Around 300,000 refugees have returned to the city in the past few months alone.

Shinohara said the UNHCR is aware of the problem and recently conducted a survey of the situation in Kabul. She put the number of families living in dire conditions in Kabul at around 1,300.

She said the UNHCR will not deal specifically with the problem but instead has directed nongovernmental organizations to concentrate their efforts on municipal areas. "We are discussing with other agencies what to do with municipal planning. The UNHCR is not directly involved with this, but there are other agencies that are working with ministries that deal with urban planning, as well," Shinohara said.

One of those NGOs is ACTED, an international aid and shelter group that has been active in Kabul since 1993. ACTED is currently involved in an ambitious plan to repopulate the devastated Shomali Plain just north of Kabul. This once fertile area was ruined by drought and war and is currently a no-man's-land.

ACTED's country manager in Kabul is Cyril Dupre of France. He is sympathetic to the plight of Kabul's refugees but said there is a shortage of NGOs working on the problem. "We have started with the construction of 500 shelters in Kabul city, in the few districts that were totally destroyed after the conflicts, which is, for example, District 3 and District 7. The problem is that now there are very few big [organizations] working in Kabul, especially building shelters. At most, there are two or three NGOs building shelters," Dupre said.

All of this comes as little comfort to 65-year-old Tazagul. He and his family of four returned to Kabul in July from a camp in Pakistan where he had lived for more than 20 years.

His home in Kabul consists of little more than a tent, some blankets, and a pot suspended over a fire fueled by dried animal dung. He listed the amount of international aid that he and his family received when they left Pakistan. "We only received 100,000 afghanis [about $2] and a tent and two blankets from the UNHCR on the way back to our country from Pakistan. Nothing else. We didn't even get any wheat," Tazagul said.

Tazagul said he stayed out of Afghanistan for two decades but finally decided to return once he heard that U.S. forces were in the country and that former King Zahir Shah had returned. "I didn't return during many regimes which have passed in our country. I was there in Pakistan, and no one would pay any attention to us. But after I was aware that the Americans are in our country and that Zahir Shah returned to the country, I came back to my homeland as well. Despite many problems that I have, I am now living in my country, and I can't and I won't go anywhere else," Tazagul said.

But he said he and his family are not likely to stay in Kabul during the winter if they don't receive assistance. He said they will probably head to Jalalabad, where the winters are warmer and where they may benefit from international aid.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.