Internally displaced Afghans reach home in the north
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan, August 21 (UNHCR) - They fled their homes in waves - during the Soviet occupation, after the collapse of the Taliban regime and throughout a seven-year-long drought. Today, the Pashtun minority of northern Afghanistan is returning from the south with a single-minded purpose: To rebuild their shattered lives.
Over the weekend, some 60 families returned from Zhari Dasht camp in the southern province of Kandahar to their native Jawzjan province in the north. With 350 people in the group, they made up the year's largest return convoy of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Afghanistan.
Among them was Lal Mohammad, a 35-year-old who looked older due to his turban and long beard. "We were tired of living in an IDP camp. The longer we stay there, the later it is for us to rebuild our houses and work on our farms," he said, speaking for his family of eight. "We had an uncertain future in the camp. Now that we have returned, we are optimistic about the future."
Mir Amza, 55, was concerned for his children: "It was not good for us, particularly for our children to grow up in an IDP camp as they need proper education."
Many of the returning IDPs have been away for up to 25 years, fleeing during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation. More left after the predominantly ethnic Pashtun Taliban regime was toppled in late 2001, fearing reprisals from ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north. Yet others sought greener pastures when the long drought hit the region in the late 1990s.
Afzal, who fled to Quetta in southern Pakistan before returning to Zhari Dasht camp and now the north, sensed the positive changes in his home country: "Undeniable progress has been made compared to 2001 and we are returning home now with the hope for a better tomorrow."
On their five-day journey from Kandahar to Jawzjan, the IDPs stopped in Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. They spent a night at the transit centre in Mazar, waiting for trucks to arrive with their belongings. As they drank green tea in the shade, they were visibly anxious to reach home. But the journey was almost complete, they said, so a delay of another few hours made no difference.
The returnees were aware of the challenges ahead. "I really hope the government can provide us with a plot of land," said Mohammad Nabi, 80, a landless returnee from Zhari Dhast.
"Even if we build a house elsewhere, it's not home. But if I build a house in my hometown, I can live there forever and hopefully life will improve for us. My sons are good carpenters and tailors and they should be able to find work," he added.
To facilitate their return, the UN refugee agency provides returning IDPs with transport assistance and gives each family an assistance package consisting of household items - including sleeping mats and tools - a stock of flour, and agricultural supplies such as vegetable and wheat seeds, fertilizer and shovels.
Additional assistance in Jawzjan province includes the provision of shelter and portable water along with income generation projects to help vulnerable returnees reintegrate. Some 600 shelter units for the returning IDPs and refugees are being prepared this year.
To date, some 11,000 internally displaced Afghans and more than 100,000 refugees from Pakistan and Iran have returned to Jawzjan. So far this year, some 360 families comprising 2,097 individuals from Zhari Dasht have been assisted to return to their places of origin. UNHCR will help another 1,000 families, registered in Zhari Dasht, to go home to the north and west of the country.
Since the UN refugee agency started its voluntary repatriation programme in 2002, more than half a million IDPs have been assisted to return to their places of origin. There are still some 118,000 displaced people in the southern provinces - particularly Kandahar and Helmand - and 13,300 in Herat province in the west.
By Mohammad Nader Farhad in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan