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There's No Place Like Home for Afghan Refugees

Asia: Displaced people in the north are returning now that the Taliban forces have departed. But many have nothing left to return to.


DASHT-I-QALA, Afghanistan — Khuja Ahmad was going home--if he could only get the last of his 10 sheep across the Kukcha River.

The drenched, miserable creature faltered midstream, so Ahmad took handfuls of its skin, shoving it across the last yards of water.

"I'm taking them home," he said Saturday. "This one nearly drowned."

Ahmad's home is a village with a lyrical name, One Thousand Gardens--Hazorbogh--but people around here say it looks like all the other dusty towns in northern Afghanistan.

Yet it is home. In the words of another refugee on the move, Tojidin Kulabi, "For every person, there is a place where he was born and lived. Home is dear, to everyone."

Thousands of people are on the move here in northern Afghanistan, their possessions piled high onto camels, donkeys, trucks and tractor-drawn wagons.

After the Taliban's retreat from the area at the beginning of last week, they are leaving the desolate refugee camps on this arid, dusty plain and returning to the villages they abandoned when the forces of the Afghan regime swept through last year.

Among those going home are the 10,000 refugees who were stranded for more than a year on a group of islands on the nearby Panj River, which forms the border with Tajikistan.

They were forced to eat grass to survive, and children went barefoot in the snow last winter. One of the refugees, a young man, gestured excitedly, recognizing this reporter who had made a trip there in the spring.

Saturday was a clear, bright day. The sun sparkled on the river, and spirits were high despite the many problems that cropped up along the road home.

At the river crossing, about 40 people perched like birds on a wagon stuck midstream, as the tractor wheels spun hopelessly. Nearby, some sheep were nearly swept away in the icy waters.

Two men used sticks to prod their heavily laden donkeys on the stomach. One beast halted midstream, panting, forlorn and exhausted.

When the Taliban forces invaded, they burned houses and crops. Many of the residents, predominantly ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, fled in terror from the forces of a radical Islamic regime dominated by ethnic Pushtuns.

Kulabi and his family had been so hard hit by Afghanistan's drought, now in its fourth year, that they had to sell part of their land. Then the Taliban invaded and soldiers stole Kulabi's flour and grain, leaving him with nothing to feed his family.

"We went hungry. We had no clothes or shoes. They burned everything. We will have to plant the trees again. The walls of my house are still there, but there is no roof or windows," he said.

Still, he is happy.

"I'm very glad we're going home," he said. "I have a good feeling."

The dirt roads in this area rarely see much traffic, but they were teeming Saturday with trucks, jeeps, donkeys and camels, all bearing great bundles, rough-hewn wood tables, stools and even bicycles.

Refugees Packed With Belongings

The refugees left nothing behind, not even the mats they had woven of grass, nor some prickly sticks that turned out to be stunted, drought-affected cotton plants torn from the ground before the journey home.

A woman carried her child, her brow furrowed with effort.

A camel driver pulled up under a tree, so the animals could nibble on its leaves. Gulkhan, 85, lay on one of the camels, a crutch at her side.

She and her family had spent 16 months in a refugee camp. When the Taliban came to her village, she fell heavily while on the run, breaking an ankle. With no proper medical care, she has needed the crutch since.

Her son, Abdurakhmon, 45, looked blank when asked about his hopes for his country once he gets back home.

"We're simple peasants," he said. "How do we know what will be? Only the government knows.

"Personally, I'm glad that my country is free, and I want the chance to work."

In his home village, the fields are plowed in the curved furrows characteristic of opium poppy cultivation, Abdurakhmon said.

The dried sticks of harvested poppies protrude from the hard, dry ground, he said. Local people blame the Taliban for the presence of the poppy crops.

The trucks on the road threw up blizzards of dust that frosted the windshields of any vehicles behind them. The men, women and children on top of trucks looked as if they had been sprayed with dun-colored paint.

On these roads, if a vehicle gets in trouble, the next one passing is expected to stop and help.

When a Soviet-made jeep sank to its axles in mud, its occupants, including two men from neighboring Tajikistan, called on the next truck for help.

But the men in the truck wanted money. The Tajiks shouted and referred to the holy month that just started: "What kind of Muslims are you? Don't you know it's Ramadan?"

The truck left, headed up the hill, then screeched to a halt and paused a moment before rolling slowly backward. The Afghans agreed to tow the jeep. The Tajiks agreed to pay.

No Rest if the Taliban Returns

One of the truck's occupants, Nur Mohammad, 20, has been fighting the Taliban since he was 15 and was taking his family of 10 home.

"If the Taliban are still here, I'll come back . . . and fight. If not, I'll sleep," he said, grinning.

Despite the stresses of the trip home, Kulabi felt optimistic and glad.

"We're sure we can rebuild our country and live in peace," he said, happy that the United States was bombing his enemies. "But if in the future [foreigners] interfere in our business, it will be bad."

At the top of a rise in the road, the village of One Thousand Gardens came into view, a golden spread of autumnal trees glittering in the sun, just visible behind a shroud of dust.

There, somewhere in the valley, lay Khuja Ahmad's home.

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