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Daunting Hardships Temper Afghan Returnees' Euphoria

Asia: The postwar nation has little to offer in terms of jobs, shelter or infrastructure.

July 12, 2002|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QARAH BAGH, Afghanistan — Hauling their meager but precious possessions from Pakistan--including wooden poles stripped from mud huts to be used to erect new shelters--Afghan refugees are streaming home with high hopes but almost no way to make a living.

In the last four months, Afghanistan has seen more than 1.2 million refugees return from neighboring countries--one of the largest and fastest voluntary migrations in history, according to officials at the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Half a million more are expected to return by year's end, and 400,000 internally displaced people could go back to their homes by then.

At first the returns seemed an enormous victory, a reflection of Afghanistan's relative stability, but now they are looking like a disaster in the making, according to aid organizations and government officials.

Little was done to prepare for the influx, and the sheer number of returnees--almost triple the projections made by U.N. officials in January--is overwhelming the country, which has little to offer in the way of shelter, water systems and sanitation.

Nearly half the returnees have stayed in Kabul, the capital; many feel that they cannot go back to their rural villages because there is no work and a four-year drought has made farming impossible.

"Imagine the impact of 500,000 refugees pouring into a city like New York. It would come to a standstill, let alone a city in Afghanistan, one of the poorest and least developed places on Earth," said Yusuf Hassan, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. Donors promised the agency $271 million based on much lower estimates of refugee returns--and of that amount, there is still a $56-million shortfall.

"If assistance doesn't come in terms of housing, jobs, it's going to destabilize the government," Hassan said.

International donors have also failed to meet their commitments to start rebuilding projects, as promised last winter in Tokyo, government officials complain.

"This is a catastrophe, a humanitarian catastrophe. The guilt for this lies with the international community," said Reconstruction Minister Mohammed Amin Farhang, a professor of economics who recently returned to Afghanistan from Germany, where he had worked for much of his professional life.

Donors promised to invest about $1.8 billion in 2002, but so far the country has received only $300 million, Farhang says. The United States, Japan and Germany have been the most forthcoming but nonetheless have delivered less than they pledged.

One reason is a lingering concern by aid organizations and foreign donors that there is still too little security in the country. Farhang points out, however, that instability is a local problem primarily affecting several north-central provinces and a handful of southern provinces--a far cry from the widespread turbulence that traumatized the country during most of the last 23 years of war.

If the international community fails to send money quickly, he fears, the combination of overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of jobs will foment instability in the large urban centers, giving international donors further reason to delay projects.

"The risk is that Kabul becomes bigger every day, and it doesn't have the capacity to absorb these refugees and that makes the city unsafe. And then the international community can say, 'Look, the city is unsafe,' " Farhang said.

"There is a direct relation between reconstruction and security; the more reconstruction, the more security," he said.

Certainly that is true for farmers such as Mohammed Ashraf. His story in many ways is a typical one, although he comes from one of the two most devastated areas of the country. In most parts of the nation, 30% to 50% of the homes have been destroyed, but in two areas, Shomali, about an hour's drive north of Kabul, and Bamian, in central Afghanistan, hardly a house was left intact, according to United Nations officials.

Ashraf lived in Qarah Bagh on the Shomali plain. Three years ago, when the Taliban came to his village with guns, he and his family fled, leaving behind beautiful carpets and half a ton of mulberries, one of their prize crops. They moved to Karachi, Pakistan, and Ashraf found work digging tunnels for gas pipelines. He was able to save $120.

"If we are very careful, it will last us until the winter season," he said.

Like most of the returning refugees, Ashraf and his family were poor when they left, and their lives hardly improved in Pakistan. More affluent refugees have yet to come back; they seem to be waiting to see whether the calm will last.

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