Displaced Afghans journey home from Khost province
KHOST, Afghanistan, May 3 (UNHCR) - More than 1,000 internally displaced Afghans have returned to their home areas from south-eastern Khost province in a series of convoys organised by the UN refugee agency and its partners in a nationwide effort to boost stability in Afghanistan.
Two separate convoys organised by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in recent weeks have helped many homeless Afghan families to go back to seven central and northern Afghan provinces.
Over the last 25 years, repeated waves of Afghans have passed through Khost province while escaping the fighting and drought that ravaged their homeland for the security of neighbouring Pakistan.
Two years ago, as people began to repatriate to post-Taliban Afghanistan, Khost again became one of the main crossing points for returning refugees. Due to fragile conditions in many parts of the country, many opted to stay in the area rather than go straight home. In the process, these internally displaced persons, or IDPs, created a new burden in the poor, remote border province.
Among the returnees who stayed on in Khost was Tor Paki. When she and her family heard that their home in Baghlan province had been destroyed during the civil war and that the prospects for a sustainable return were weak, they opted to stay in Khost, where her husband found work as a cook.
Her family finally decided to return home last week after hearing various stories on the radio about conditions in Baghlan.
"For the last year we have been talking about going to Baghlan but we had no money. I listened to radio programmes from Kabul and Mazar, and people were saying that everything is okay," Tor Paki said. "Then we heard that UNHCR was helping IDPs to return home, so we made the big decision and signed up."
Tor Paki is a trained tailor, and she hopes that UNHCR will offer income generation opportunities in her village. If she had a sewing machine, she said, she could teach tailoring to other women as well.
Before leaving Khost town, Tor Paki and the more than 600 Afghans returning last week received food aid and other assistance items and were medically screened by IOM doctors. They also underwent mine-awareness training so that children in particular might better understand the dangers of the unexploded ordnance that still litters much of Afghanistan's countryside. The children were also vaccinated against various illnesses.
The latest group of displaced persons to leave Khost set out in 20 trucks hired to take them back to Kabul, Takhar, Kapisa, Paktia and Baghlan provinces. The week before, another UNHCR/IOM convoy transported 459 persons back to their homes in Logar, Wardak and Laghman provinces.
Thirty-eight-year-old Najibullah, along with his wife and four children, was also aboard the latest convoy of 20 buses and trucks to leave Khost. Najibullah was displaced in 1998 during fighting between the Taliban and other groups in Char Asiab district of Kabul province. He passed the intervening years in Khost, pushing a cart in the town's market.
Late last year, he went back to his village and saw that UNHCR had distributed shelter materials to several families, and that a new school was being built.
"I am optimistic for the future of my children," Najibullah said. "My wife and I are illiterate, but we want our children to go to school and have a better life."
Once he gets home, Najibullah said that he will apply to join the Afghan National Army. His family will stay with an uncle while they are rebuilding their home.
Before the convoys leave Khost, UN refugee agency workers meet with the Afghans to understand their motivations and to ensure that they know about the rehabilitation needs and the human rights situation in their home areas. The agency also wants to make sure that no one is being forced to return. Once the Afghans actually reach their homes, similar UNHCR teams will undertake monitoring visits to help ensure that their basic needs are met.
Another returning IDP last month was 16-year-old Nanguli, who lost his leg in 1991 when a rocket slammed into his house in Kabul. The civil war that engulfed Kabul finally drove his family to leave the Afghan capital for the relative security of Khost in 1996. Naguli said that he was accepted by people in Khost, but now he wants to go back to where he was born.
"I had a lot of friends in school in Khost. No one cared that I only have one leg," said Nanguli. "But I want to finish school in the village where I was born."
Not everyone feels the same way. Located behind Khost's customs house is a makeshift encampment that hosts more than 9,500 displaced Afghans. The camp is part of the cycle of poverty and urbanisation that complicates the post-war effort to help Afghans return to their communities of origin. Mostly occupied by people originating from other areas of Khost province, they appear content to remain there for the time being so that they may access aid and occasional employment more easily.
More than 160,000 internally displaced persons are scattered throughout Afghanistan, mostly in the southern and western regions of the country, the last of the more than 1 million IDPs who were uprooted at the height of the Taliban regime. UNHCR hopes to be able to help at least 100,000 displaced people return home by the end of this year. The next convoys are not scheduled to leave Khost until September.