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Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - The long way home

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1997

Despite the outgoing conflict in Afghanistan, many people have already returned home. Soon, perhaps, that figure may exceed four million in what has become the largest assisted repatriation programme in the UNHCR's history.

By Zivan Damato

Chaman is a hot and obscure border town in Pakistan's Baluchistan province. At the height of the exodus from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of civilians poured into the town in search of safety and in the last few years many have retraced their steps through the area. Soon, perhaps, one Afghan refugee passing by here will become the four millionth person to return home and Chaman itself will become a minor footnote in history.

Whoever that person is, whether it is a grizzled peasant, a Kandahar housewife or a village urchin, their passage will be a symbol not only of one of the most successful humanitarian missions in modern history, but also of the years of hard work ahead before the task can be completed.

The numbers tell part of the story and they are truly staggering. In the last two decades, as Afghanistan was rocked first by invasion and then by civil war, an estimated 6.2 million people fled to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran where UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies cared for them. That represented the biggest refugee caseload in UNHCR's history. Today, eight years after assisted repatriations began, nearly four million people have returned home, more than half of them with direct UNHCR help. That was another record for the agency the largest assisted repatriation programme since it was created in 1951.

Figures tell only one side of the story and tend to mask the human dimension the destruction of an entire country, its institutions, schools and clinics; the deaths of loved ones and the joy and the turmoil of return.

Going home, of course, should be a supremely happy event. But nothing is straightforward in today's Afghanistan. Life in a refugee camp is harsh, but so is returning to a nation still riven by internal conflict and widescale destruction, where life remains a cheap commodity.

Belandy is a tiny Afghan village 75 kilometres from the Chaman border crossing. Afghanistan's struggle to rise from the ashes and rebuild itself has been played out here since 1996. In one everyday scene during those early days of rebuilding, children sit cross-legged in the shade of a mulberry tree. A venerable white bearded teacher points with a stick to letters of the Pushto language scrawled in red chalk on a partially destroyed wall. This had formerly been part of the village school which was deliberately destroyed, as were many others, by mujahedeen resistance fighters in their attempts to wipe out what they saw as 'indoctrination centres' established by the then central communist government.

The harassed teacher shouts to his students to make himself heard above the staccato hammering of a local NGO work team fitting window frames into the walls of a new four-room school. Hopefully, it will house not only the current village students, but will also encourage other refugee families still in Pakistan to return to the area. The teacher himself faces an uncertain future. He is paid sporadically by parental donation, sometimes a chicken, sometimes a bag of wheat. He does not receive a salary and wonders if he ever will.

Six hundred kilometres to the north-east, refugees returning to Afghanistan's Mosakheal district face a different problem. There used to be a health clinic here, but it was destroyed years ago after fighters had commandered it as a base in the late 1980s. Since then civilians have had to travel eight hours along a deeply rutted road to the provincial capital of Khost, or even slip back across the border into Pakistan to receive medical assistance.

UNHCR recently funded the reconstruction of a district clinic in Mosakheal but such are the complexities of modern-day Afghanistan, even this goodwill gesture has produced mixed results. Before the war, consultations and medicines were provided free and the Taliban have continued the tradition of refusing to allow doctors to charge fees. So, while returnees can now get some help at the clinic, many medicines donated by the UN and relief agencies have poured onto the black market and undermined the very viability of the new clinic.

The Mosakheal medical facility and Belandy school are part of a network of small-scale projects UNHCR, other UN agencies and national and international NGOs have established across Afghanistan. In the last few years, UNHCR has helped more than 28,000 families rebuild their homes. The agency has financed reconstruction of 230 primary schools and 58 clinics, rehabilitated more than 60 potable water and 160 irrigation schemes and completed around 140 road and bridge repair projects. More than 100 skills training and income generating projects have been launched. Two pilot lending programmes for women were started in the northern part of the country and, following their success, UNHCR hopes to introduce similar schemes in other parts of Afghanistan.

These are merely temporary measures, designed to bridge the gap until Afghanistan's civil war is finally halted and large-scale reconstruction starts. That will be an enormous task. The economy has been decimated. Afghanistan's infrastructure and industrial base have disappeared and there is little for former refugees to do but survive on subsistence agriculture and small-scale trade.

Irrigation systems have collapsed. Even bridges and other structures which escaped the ravages of war are falling down because of lack of maintenance. The land is one huge and deadly obstacle course with millions of deadly mines buried just beneath the topsoil. An unknown number of people have been disfigured. The ongoing armed conflict continues to claim scores of lives daily. Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people remain homeless.

The destruction has not only been physical. Afghan society has been ripped apart, too. A whole generation has grown up without any education beyond the primary level. Many youngsters have not received any teaching at all. The literacy rate, especially among females, is probably the lowest in the world. Administrators and technocrats who ran government departments and businesses have either fled or been killed. A once friendly and cheerful population is now ruled by intolerance and fanaticism.

Even if the war stops today, it will take years to repatriate Afghanistan's remaining refugees and to rebuild the country. Given such a bleak outlook there are few, if any jewels remaining in the rusted crown of Afghanistan.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)

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