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Feature: Home to face a brave new world

Feature: Home to face a brave new world

Afghan returnees from Iran are going home to many uncertainties. Some arrive back in Afghanistan with little to their names, and must start their lives from scratch. But almost all say they are happy to find peace and freedom in their homeland.
20 November 2002
Musa and his relatives, who have just returned from Iran, contemplate their next move at the transit centre in Herat.

HERAT, Afghanistan (UNHCR) - Mohammad stands outside his textile shop in Herat, western Afghanistan, smiling as he watches his countrymen retrace the steps he once took. Like them, he had sought refuge in Iran - when Herat was bombarded during the Soviet invasion. And like them, he chose to come back to his native city, in 1993.

Today, as he welcomes the new wave of returnees from Iran, he says, "I feel like members of the family are coming home. I can understand their feelings. They feel like they've been released from prison. I had the same feeling in Iran."

During the summer, Mohammad opened a textile shop in a small bazaar in the transit centre in Herat. It is a service for the returnees, he says. He and his father got their business up and running again after long years spent as refugees. He hopes they can set a positive example to those coming home now. His can-do approach is both heartening and infectious.

"Come back to Afghanistan and start a new life," he urges the new returnees. "In Iran, we lived in cities and proper buildings. There were asphalt roads. Here, people are living in mud huts. Even if it's rough at the beginning, it will get better over time. We need to pull together to rebuild the country. Do business. Do agriculture. Do whatever you can. Then at least we will have something for the next generation."

Shop owner Mohammad welcomes returnees from Iran in the Herat transit centre.

Yet for all the hope and enthusiasm, the decision to return to a life of uncertainty is a tough one. Some Afghans in Iran are coming home to little or nothing. Almost half of those registering to repatriate from there say they have no house to return to. They have to start from scratch all over again.

Musa, originally from Uruzgan in central Afghanistan, fled the Taliban two years ago with his brother, their wives and young children for the safety of Iran. Now back in Herat, he has no house, no land, nothing. His brother is going through the city looking for somewhere for the group of 12 to live. They have spent the past few days living in one of the shelters in the transit centre.

"If we don't find work here, we'll try Mazar-i-Sharif," says Musa, a mason. Like thousands of other Afghans, the brothers worked as casual labourers in Iran, and left a guaranteed source of income behind when they chose to return to Afghanistan.

Sitting on the doorstep of the temporary shelter in the waning evening sun, Musa's expression does not give away much. He seems philosophical about the family's prospects. "The money we earned and saved in Iran is more valuable here now," he says. He also believes that he and his brother can earn more money in Afghanistan doing the same work they did in Iran. "Even if we starve we'd prefer to be here than to be refugees in Iran."

Like Musa, Abdulrahman and his family had no house and no land to return to after two decades in Iran. Originally from Kunduz in the north, they felt safer settling in Kabul. His voluntary repatriation form shows he registered with the UNHCR mobile team in Golestan province, on Iran's Caspian Sea coast - a far cry from where he is now.

Abdulrahman has been back home for almost three months. His savings have run out. The family is living in squalor in the now devastated Ahuh shoe factory in Kabul. It used to be the proud employer of about 600 people and produced the best shoes in Afghanistan. Today, it is a symbol of the country's shattered economy. The district in which it lies is in complete ruins.

Many of the dozens of returnee families living a hand-to-mouth existence in the shell of the factory came back from Iran. There is only one well and no proper sanitation. The buildings' rooms are exposed to the elements. It is bitterly cold now in Kabul. Abdulrahman's wife squats over a mud-brick stove in the room shared by this family of 12.

What is it like being back? "Look around you," gestures Abdulrahman with his hand. "We were used to living in a clean place."

Abdulrahman was a carpenter in Iran. His face breaks into a smile. "I found work this week for the first time," he announces. He does not know how long the job will last but he is just glad to be employed for now. Maybe he will earn a dollar a day. Whether that will be enough to find decent accommodation for his family is another question entirely. It costs a small fortune to rent a room in Kabul today. The city's population is swelling. At least 25 percent of the more than 250,000 Afghans who have returned from Iran so far told UNHCR they were headed to the capital. Abdulrahman has spent much of his first three months back home searching for a place he can afford.

Life in Iran was far from perfect for Musa and Abdulrahman. But at least there were more certainties there than in Afghanistan. Still, both say they are glad they came back. For them, their country is free now. And so are they.

"We have freedom and peace again," says Abdulrahman. "I cannot expect more than this."

"Crossing the border, we felt 'we're home now'," says Musa. "No one's stopping me asking me where I'm going like in Iran."

For a time at least, this new-found feeling of regained freedom helps them cope with the reality that they have nothing.

The Afghans are tough people and they work hard. But it will take more than that to help them reintegrate and rebuild. It is not just a few families who need help. So many need homes, jobs. All need schools for their children and hospitals for their sick and elderly.

More than 1.7 million Afghan refugees have returned home this year with assistance from UNHCR, with similar numbers expected to make the same journey in 2003.

But the repatriation effort cannot happen in isolation. For it to be sustainable, it has to be backed up by solid and ongoing support from the international community on the ground in Afghanistan. For UNHCR, recognition of the link between the four "Rs" - repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction - is essential.

If not, where to next for people like Musa and Abdulrahman? They may be back home but they are still displaced, in more ways than one.

By Laura O'Mahony