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Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Afghanistan: Life among the ruins

Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Afghanistan: Life among the ruins
Refugees (104, II - 1996)

1 June 1996
Life and work among the ruins of war-ravaged Kabul is stressful but rewarding, according to Officer-in-Charge Terry Pitzner.

Life and work among the ruins of war-ravaged Kabul is stressful but rewarding, according to Officer-in-Charge Terry Pitzner.

By Terry Pitzner
UNHCR Officer-in-Charge - Kabul, Afghanistan

In most places, you wake to a dawn chorus of birds or traffic. In Afghanistan, during certain periods in certain cities, you wake to a dawn chorus of gunfire, or rocket explosions. Outside the capital, Kabul, this dawn chorus is often insignificant: bullets loosed into the sky to celebrate a wedding or the rising of the sun, or nothing in particular. Or perhaps it heralds the start of a feud or a conflict that may last a couple of hours, a day, a week or a year. After a while you can tell by the tone and intensity whether you can roll over for another half-hour's sleep - or whether you should be crouching behind the sandbags.

Within Kabul there has been little to celebrate since 1993, when rockets started falling sporadically on the city, which had escaped relatively lightly during the 10-year Soviet occupation and the ensuing struggle to oust the communist government. On 1 January 1994, two years after that government finally fell, a major shift in alliances brought full-scale war to Kabul. The bullets and rockets are deadly serious for the city's 1 million inhabitants and for the aid agencies struggling to alleviate the effects of two and a half years of war and intermittent siege, displacement, disfigurement and death. Thousands have been killed since 1993.

The officer in charge of UNHCR operations in Kabul is Terry Pitzner, a 54-year-old American who arrived in Kabul in March 1995, the day after opposition Taliban fighters were pushed out of the southern part of the city. Both he and his UNHCR colleague, Stephanie Aquino, have grown accustomed to the noise and the ever-present danger that today's rockets might be heading in their direction. "You just learn to live with that," said Pitzner. "After all, a million other people are living with the same dangers we are." He seems more concerned that the daily agenda of the aid programmes is constantly affected by the arbitrary pattern of destruction.

"Rockets have rained on Kabul daily for the past 10 months, since a six-month informal ceasefire broke down. As U.N. Team Leader and Security Coordinator, as well as being in charge of UNHCR's operations for returnees and displaced in Kabul, my daily concerns and responsibilities are constantly changing - depending on where the rockets are landing," he said. "Do I move our office, or the UNICEF or UNDP offices again? Where are the safe areas? The Turkish Ambassador's bedroom was hit while he was in bed. Will his embassy leave too? Our office safe, containing $70,000, was stolen by 15 armed men. How will the loss of all our cash affect our programme? What's happening on the human rights front? Can the local human rights NGO, which UNHCR is supporting, do something to help?"

Pitzner and Aquino both have long experience of the difficult living and working conditions in Afghanistan. They served together in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where there is a camp for refugees from Tajikistan. Aquino then went on to work with Afghan returnees in the western city of Herat, until the day after it suddenly fell to the Taliban last autumn. In March 1994, Pitzner was transferred from Mazar to the eastern city of Jalalabad, where a huge camp-city had sprung up for the displaced from Kabul. By the summer of 1994, the camp had a population of 130,000. After a year, as the displaced began returning to the capital, he was put in charge of UNHCR's office there.

"In spite of it all, I enjoy being here," says Pitzner. "The Afghans are remarkable people. Whatever strength and initiative we may have is drawn from the fact that every day we witness their extraordinary capacity to survive, to do business, to provide for their families, to continue life among the ruins. You give them a little and they make the absolute most of it."

To assist individuals would be more or less impossible under present conditions, so the programme run by Pitzner and Aquino is aimed more at aiding entire communities. "This has been highly successful," said Pitzner. "UNHCR/WFP food-for-work programmes employ large numbers of returnees to repair Kabul's badly damaged infrastructure."

As well as rehabilitating roads, schools and water systems, he is in overall charge of a number of programmes which aim to rehabilitate people. "We do vocational training and education, focusing mainly on disabled or otherwise impaired returnees, widows, unskilled youths. Afghans have lost 17 years to war and the future of Afghanistan will depend on this generation. If they are unskilled and uneducated, the prospects are grim."

Pitzner is well-qualified for this side of the job. For 24 years, he provided residential treatment for emotionally disturbed and disabled children in the United States. Then in 1989, aged 47, he made a radical change of life, moving to Peshawar to work for an NGO that was caring for war-wounded Afghans. He was 50 when he joined UNHCR as a field officer and moved again, inside Afghanistan.

He shows no sign of wanting to leave. As he points out, there are many places in Afghanistan where you wake up to the sound of birds singing. He just doesn't get to visit them very often.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)