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Putting Afghanistan's "guest house" back in order


Putting Afghanistan's "guest house" back in order

Istalif, an idyllic spot north of Kabul, is a village of returnees. The former battleground is slowly rising from the ruins to woo tourists with its breathtaking scenery and famous pottery. But first, it has to heal its own wounds.
5 April 2007 Also available in:
Returnees in Istalif work on a water project together.

ISTALIF, Afghanistan, April 5 (UNHCR) - It was once known as the guest house of Afghanistan, a peaceful getaway in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. But decades of conflict turned Istalif into a frontline for battles between Soviet troops, the mujahideen, the Northern Alliance and the Taliban regime. Thousands of families fled their homes.

Today, Istalif is still largely in ruins, but its small bazaar is slowly bringing colour and life back to the beautiful village on the edge of the Shomali Plain north of Kabul. Visitors are trickling in for the famous pottery, vast vineyards and lovely weather. But before Afghanistan's guest house can start welcoming back the tourists, it first needs to heal the wounds among its own communities.

"There were 48,000 families here before the war," said Shah Rasoul Faiaq, the district commissioner in Istalif. "Today, 50 percent of our people are returnees from within Afghanistan, and 50 percent are returnees from outside the country. Our needs are great. We are hardworking people but we need small investments to start small businesses in pottery, carpet weaving and cattle raising."

He noted that the South Korean government had built a hydropower plant and handed it over to the local authorities. As a result, 600 families now have electricity 24 hours a day.

Physical infrastructure and economic development aside, there is an urgent need for reconciliation among estranged ethnic groups. Tajiks form the majority of the population here, but the Pashtuns were favoured under the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule. Tajiks were forced to leave and their homes were razed to the ground while Pashtuns were allowed to stay and their houses left intact. In retaliation, some Tajik families living upstream decided to block the water supply to a Pashtun enclave further downstream.

In an effort to resolve community problems and ease ethnic tensions in the area, the UN refugee agency in 2005 started a co-existence project with the Malteser International non-governmental organisation. The project aimed to promote the reintegration of communities divided by conflict and help them to live in peace.

Representatives from each community were trained in conflict resolution before a 20-member peace committee was formed by men and women from both ethnic groups. The "software" part of the initiative focused on social education, ranging from water and sanitation issues to the importance of living in unity.

The "hardware" focused on joint infrastructural projects. For two months, 75 men from both communities worked side by side for US$3 a day each to build a bathroom for spring water and later to rehabilitate a road leading up to it.

"This water can treat skin diseases," said Abdullah, a member of the Tajik peace committee. "We built a bathroom so people can take a shower properly, and a good road to make the journey smoother."

Mohammed Yaseen, the chairman of the Pashtun committee, noted, "The impact is clear: three years ago, we had no contact with families on the other side. We didn't have any relationship or social gatherings. But working together has brought tangible changes in our relationship. Last summer they made frequent visits to our house."

However, tensions still exist. "The need to continue and expand the project for this year is almost as crucial as last year because many of the villagers are illiterate and still prejudiced. More civic education can change their attitudes," said Abdullah.

The colourful pottery market in Istalif, north of Kabul, draws a few tourists.

Maya Ameratunga, who oversees the region for UNHCR, agreed: "We understand that co-existence projects require long-term investment and we will continue to provide assistance to help the mixed communities to live together."

For the people of Istalif, the investment is not just for themselves. "With the bathroom and road, people from other provinces can come and get treatment for their problems," said Abdullah. With hosts like him, Istalif may soon have to elevate its status from the guest house to the spa resort of Afghanistan.

By Mohammed Nader Farhad in Istalif, Afghanistan