Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - Afghan Soap

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1997

The resurgence of economic activity will be the key to the future stability of Afghanistan. In one village, women have been trained in an unlikely skill.

By Rupert Colville

There is a new touch of hope and prosperity in the air in the tiny Afghan village of Haidry Qala. Wheat fields are blossoming again. Houses, and the magnificent traditional four-metre high mud walls which surround each family compound, are being rebuilt. And the village women have an unusual skill the ability to make soap.

Haidry Qala is the history of modern Afghanistan in microcosm. When the Soviet army invaded in 1979, civilians fled as their homes were destroyed under a barrage of tank and aerial bombardment. The village was virtually abandoned for years. Political and military fortunes fluctuated and the villagers debated endlessly about whether to leave their refugee camp in Pakistan and go home. "I came back here several times to see what was going on," recalls one elder, Hajji Baqi. "When the Taliban arrived two years ago it became peaceful and I decided to come back." He finally did so in May, along with most of the other villagers.

A key to a sustained and successful repatriation programme in Haidry Qala and across Afghanistan will be the revival of economic activity. While recognizing that could take years on a national scale, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have, in the interim, launched a series of initiatives at family and community level to both train refugees in various skills and to help them return home in escorted convoys as part of group repatriation schemes.

Earlier this year, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) began one UNHCR-financed project to train more than 100 villagers in a variety of skills. The 67 women in the programme underwent a four-month course in embroidery, tailoring or soap-making, which included two weeks basic business training, in one of six centres in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. When they returned home, UNHCR and IRC supplemented their standard repatriation package of 5,000 rupees ($125) and 300 kgs of wheat flour with an extra 1,300 rupees ($32) transport allowance and a heavily subsidized tool kit and materials for their new jobs. Male apprentices received 500 rupees ($12.5) a month to undergo a nine-month course in such trades as carpentry and tractor repair in their home areas.

Ten female trainees and their families later returned to Haidry Qala where they are currently setting up their new enterprises. "If raw materials are available in large quantities, we'll produce on a large scale and sell collectively" outside the village, says Mohammed Ayub, an experienced village businessman and member of the Taliban. "If we only get small amounts of material, we'll sell individually." Whatever, he is confident the village will make a profit with a bar of soap selling at between 7-8 rupees in nearby towns.

Ruzi Khan, IRC's business management supervisor, says many Afghans already have traditional artisan skills in addition to their newly acquired expertise; they simply don't know how to market themselves properly. In follow-up training, he said, the women will be taught "how to sell, how to reduce costs ... how to price the product and how to maximize their profits. The men can go and talk about the village products in the mosque and in the graveyard" in the absence of television and radio advertizing. "There is a market," he insisted. "It is just a question of finding it."

In Haidry Qala, the villagers continue to quietly stitch their lives together again. There is still no school or clinic. Irrigation ditches must be cleaned out and the wheat harvested. There is not enough roofing material to go around and Hajji Baqi is lodging with a cousin until his own home can be repaired. "I have one brother who is still in Pakistan," he says, "but he can't come back because of the lack of shelter. When I've rebuilt my house he can come and stay with me." Operation Soap could help ensure the rebirth of Haidry Qala and Hajji Baqi's feeling that "I'm happy we have returned here."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)