According to the UN refugee agency, Afghans are the world's single largest refugee population, with an estimated 4 million having emigrated to Pakistan and Iran, as well as 70 other countries. And record numbers have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban one year ago. As Afghanistan's harsh winter approaches, many of the returnees are being assisted by the UNHCR and other aid organizations, especially in the country's more remote areas. But thousands of others -- disillusioned by the lack of jobs and adequate shelter -- are emigrating once again. RFE/RL spoke with Afghan government and aid officials about the crisis, and found one family for whom the promise of rebuilding their lives at home is all but lost.
Kabul, 20 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Sharifa crouches amid the dusty rubble of a Kabul shoe factory destroyed in the Afghan civil war, her 4-month-old daughter crying in her lap. The baby -- one of twin girls -- is no bigger than a loaf of bread, and she is hungry. "I have no milk in my breasts. One of my breasts was operated on due to the presence of a tumor, and the other [breast] has no milk. Both of [the babies] are crying from hunger. There's no nutritious food for me to eat to provide milk for them. I only fill the milk bottle with tea and give it to them. They cry all during the day and night. We are living in hardship, due to the cold weather and lack of shelter. Just a little while ago, I was out searching for a house to rent, but with no luck. I took one of the twins with me, and the other is still in the cradle."
Five months ago, Sharifa and her husband, 57-year-old Agha Mohammad, returned to Afghanistan from Peshawar, Pakistan, with their four sons and three daughters, hoping to rebuild their lives in Afghanistan. The twins were born a short time later, amid the ruins of western Kabul.
When the family crossed the Pakistani border into Afghanistan, they say they received $100, two blankets, and two bags of flour from the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. The family arrived in the Afghan capital to find only misery -- no jobs, no shelter, little food. They live with three other families within the broken mud-brick walls of the shoe factory. Only one small room has a roof, there is no heat, and winter is looming. "I have been staying here for five months. We have nothing. No shelter. No coal. And no stove. There is nothing. I have been looking for a house to rent with my wife since the morning, but it is hard to find. [There is only one small room here] in which I have put some mud [to make it level], but because of the cold, we cannot stay there. I have 11 children. Only God will help us -- there is no other option," said Mohammad.
Mohammad and his family are among the more than 1.5 million Afghans who the UNHCR says have returned from Pakistan since March. Another 308,000 have returned from Iran, and 10,000 from the Central Asian states. Those figures far exceeded predictions, with a total of 2 million Afghans expected to return home by the end of the year. Almost half are returning to central Afghanistan, particularly Kabul and Parwan provinces.
Despite the influx of returnees, Maki Shinohara, the UNHCR spokeswoman in Kabul, says her agency is better prepared this year to help Afghans face the winter. She said the UNHCR is particularly focusing on those most in need -- the elderly, and those living in higher elevations who will lose contact with the outside world once the snows hit. "What the UNHCR did was, we basically did a survey province by province to see how many people among returned Afghans, as well as internally displaced Afghans, might become vulnerable or come into trouble [during the] winter season. The figure we came up with was about 560,000. Basically, these are the people who are in very rural communities. They will be cut off by any road access once the snow falls."
Shinohara said the UNHCR has helped the most vulnerable Afghans by providing materials to build some 40,000 houses, which can shelter up to 200,000 people. She said internationally funded reconstruction projects have not kept pace with the repatriation, meaning there is little or no work for Afghans as winter nears. Because of this, she said the UNHCR and other aid agencies are developing strategies to simply help people survive the winter. "This winter is definitely a challenge. Our job is to at least try to have these people stay in their home villages. The problem is that during this year, we have been providing humanitarian assistance, but what we are really waiting for is large reconstruction projects to kick in. We can provide the shelter, very basic water, but beyond this, what these families need -- once returned -- are schools, medical facilities and, ultimately, jobs so they can support their families."
The UNHCR is providing tents, heating fuel, and other essentials so that villagers -- especially in the Central Highlands -- can remain in their homes and won't have to travel to towns and cities for assistance. But Shinohara said lives can't be rebuilt with soap, blankets and plastic sheeting. That can only come through job creation. "It's been a dilemma for the past decades. After the conflict is over, the UNHCR and other agencies would be providing humanitarian emergency aid and, and once the peace is gained, we would eventually have to reduce the emergency humanitarian assistance and pass it over to more development type of assistance. As we've seen in the Balkans, it's very difficult to bridge the gap between humanitarian assistance and development aid."
Shinohara said it's not all "gloom and doom," however. The UNHCR spokeswoman says that communities are beginning to flourish in areas where there had been no life just a year or so ago. But she said the story of Mohammad and his family -- fighting desperate poverty and hunger, and worried about surviving Afghanistan's bitter winter temperatures -- is, unfortunately, not unusual. "We are already seeing some families going back to Pakistan. There might be 100 to 200 families per week who have returned to Afghanistan but who are now picking up and moving back to Pakistan. We are trying to look into the trends and reasons behind this. For the most part, at this time, these families are basically going back across to spend the winter season in a milder climate."
Abdul Fatah Behmanish is the head of planning and foreign relations in the Afghan Ministry of Repatriation and Refugee Affairs. He said some Afghan families also are returning to Pakistan because the promise of life in their home country has not met their expectations. "Donor countries did not help us in this regard [providing shelters] and also the UNHCR could not assist [returnees] very well due to lack of funding. And we were not able to help them in terms of providing foodstuffs and cash, either. We could not provide them with jobs. And when returnees went to their home villages, there was a lack of water, no schools for the education of their children, as well as a lack of jobs. These are all the factors which have been taken into consideration [in causing the returnees to go back to Pakistan or elsewhere]."
Indeed, Mohammad and his wife, Sharifa, say they have received no assistance of any kind from the UNHCR, the Afghan Red Crescent Society or other aid agencies during the five months they have been back in Kabul.
For now, Behmanish says, the emigrations back to Pakistan and Iran are a trickle, but could begin in large numbers again if the international community does not keep its word to help Afghanistan rebuild after more than two decades of conflict. "If donors don't assist us as soon as possible, and if we cannot do anything for the returnees, then I'm of the belief that emigrations will resume."
Doctors Without Borders, a nongovernmental organization, recently charged the UNHCR with "betraying its mandate" by tacitly encouraging refugees to return to Afghanistan and then "deliberately abandoning the supervision of the conditions of the return of the refugees in their villages." The UNHCR denies the charge, saying it is doing its best to help voluntary returnees, but is not promoting returns.
In the shoe factory, Mohammad played with one of his young sons as he talked about his future. Originally from the Shomali Plains, he said he once worked as a farmer and casual laborer, but that he has arthritis now and no one wants to hire him. He said he will return to Pakistan for the winter, if he can afford it. "If I have money to rent a car, I will go back to Pakistan, since winter is coming, and the weather is very cold here and I have 11 children. I don't have anything to do but to sit in one place all day long because of the cold weather."
While one baby cries, Sharifa rocks her other twin daughter in an old cradle, her eyes squinting in the bright sun streaming through the roofless room. She said prices have gone up since the fall of the Taliban, and it is difficult to feed her family. Sometimes, she said, she feels like giving up. "Nothing is cheap, only turnips, which we make soup from. Or we eat some pulses, but even these are hard to find. I wish we could even find that to eat, but we can't when there are no jobs to earn money to buy food. Our condition is very bad. I even wanted to take some poison, since taking poison is much better than our poverty."
Sharifa said that if her family doesn't succeed in finding the money to travel to Pakistan, they will try instead to move to the Afghan desert. She says it is better to die trying to reach such a place than to continue living in utter misery in Kabul.