BAG-E AALAM, 31 Mar 2005 (IRIN) - Many Afghans returning to the Shamali plains, north of the capital Kabul, continue to find it hard to rebuild their lives due to unemployment and a lack of basic amenities and facilities.
The Shamali plains is a vast area wedged between the mountains stretching to the north from the capital and one of the most fertile areas in the country, once a major grape growing region. During the conflict between the Taliban and opposition Northern Alliance, the former burned and destroyed all the vineyards. Now it's possible to see young grape trees growing on the both sides of the main road passing through the area, replanted by returnees since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001.
But the region is also one of the most heavily mined areas in the country and there are still some signs close to the grape plantations and villages warning passers-by not to proceed because of the potential danger. De-miners carry out their scrupulous work while cars pass by and local residents work the fields, which either had been de-mined or declared safe.
Nozanin, a petite woman looking much older then her 35 years, lives in the village of Bag-e Aalam about two hours drive from Kabul, having returned there recently after seven years in a refugee camp in Karachi, southern Pakistan.
"We are happy to be back home. There is nothing like being back in your home country," the mother of six said, adding, however, that life was not easy for them, as they had to restart their new lives from scratch. They lack access to clean drinking water, her husband is unemployed and daughters of school age cannot go to school as they are in their teens and never attended school before.
"They would feel uncomfortable if they went to school with kids who are half their age. But my younger daughter will go to school," Nozanin told IRIN.
She recalled how they fled their home when the Taliban first arrived. "They came here and forced us to leave our houses. First we left for Kabul, but then decided to go to Pakistan," she said.
Sali Muhammad, 29, another returnee from Pakistan in Bag-e Aalam, returned in 2003 after having lived in that country for more than 20 years. "We left for Pakistan when I was eight as my father passed away then. We fled our homeland because of the communist regime. And every time a new regime came to power in Kabul we were closely watching the situation," he told IRIN. "We didn't feel that we could return and then the Taliban came and that made us stay in Pakistan for such a long time," the father of three explained.
Along with returnees from Pakistan, many Afghans are returning from Iran. Two brothers, Hamidullah, 28, and Ahmadullah, 26, are among them. They had lived there for more than five years and returned about 10 months ago. "All our community had to flee because of the Taliban. We were forced to leave as the houses were burned down and all the trees were cut. The Taliban burned everything and we lost everything we had," Hamidullah told IRIN.
The Shamali plains were one of the main frontlines during the conflict between the Taliban and Northern Alliance. There were about 1,500 villages in the area and when the fighting broke out most of them were destroyed.
"During the conflict you could not find anyone here as all of the residents left for Pakistan and Iran. Now they are coming back," Abdul Habib Hamidi, a field officer with the Jaweed Rehabilitation Organisation for Afghanistan, a local NGO assisting returnees, told IRIN, adding that some residents left their homes and came back but had to leave again due to ongoing instability and conflicts. "Some families had become refugees up to three times."
According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 200,000 returnees went back to their homes in the seven districts, comprising the Shamali plains.
"In the Shamali plains it's been an area of heavy return," Tim Irwin, a spokesman for UNHCR in Afghanistan, told IRIN in Bag-e Aalam.
"Almost each and every one in the Shamali plains is a returnee either from Pakistan or have been displaced during the war. Most of these people were assisted by UNHCR and have gone back to their areas of origin," Nader Farhad, a public information assistant with the UN refugee agency, told IRIN.
"Last year we had around 700,000 returnees in the country, about half of them from Pakistan and half from Iran, and some 40,000 returnees from non-neighbouring countries. And obviously some of them have come here," Irwin added.
MAIN CHALLENGES FOR RETURNEES
"For people coming back the main challenges are finding work, shelter, schools for their children and adequate healthcare. These are developmental issues associated with poverty and clearly although a lot has changed in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, it still remains a poor country," Irwin maintained. "These are ongoing challenges for everybody in this country."
Afghanistan's first ever National Human Development Report (NHDR), supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and launched in February, revealed that the country's Human Development Index (HDI) fell close to the bottom of the 177 countries ranked by the global Human Development Report 2004, way behind all of its neighbours and only just above Burundi, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Sierra Leone.
The report provides shocking findings, including the fact that every 30 minutes a woman in Afghanistan dies from pregnancy-related causes. It also notes that 20 percent of children die before the age of five and that more than 300,000 children may have perished during the conflict.
The report also says that the poorest 30 percent of the population receive only 9 percent of the national income, while the upper 30 percent receive 55 per cent.
For many returnees coming back meant not only being home but starting a new life full of challenges. There are still many difficulties lying ahead of the returnees, Farhad said.
Nozanin's family of nine now lives in a house made of mud where a couple of rooms have recently been finished with assistance from UNHCR. While the family was in Pakistan they managed to save some money and used it for building their new home.
"The Shamali is one of the main areas for our shelter programme. The shelter programme provides assistance in terms of both materials and some financial assistance to those vulnerable families who have returned," Irwin said.
In order to qualify for that assistance returnees need to have access to a piece of land. Then UNHCR provides them with building materials and the assistance is given in a staggered way. Monitoring teams from the agency and implementing partners go and see how work is progressing. If they build the walls then they get the window frames and so on.
"At the end of the process before the building is officially handed over to the beneficiary they get a small cash grant, around US $50 to cover some of their labour costs. Roughly speaking, the cost of our assistance depending on the area and materials used, is about $650. And the overall cost of a house depending on the area and materials is approximately $1,200," Irwin explained.
Since the UNHCR shelter programme began in 2002, some 110,000 shelters have been constructed across the country. In 2004, the UN agency provided around 27,500 shelters and the plans for 2005 is to slightly reduce that. The average returnee family has about six to seven members, suggesting that roughly 715,000 returnees benefited from the shelter since 2002, including an estimated 180,000 returnees in 2004.
Returnees need a place to live and for those people who do not have land one of the big pressing issues for the country is land distribution, Irwin maintained. "We advocate strongly that there be a process or programme of land distribution in the urban areas and also in the rural areas and there are indications that that's begun and will continue," he said.
ACCESS TO CLEAN DRINKING WATER
But shelter is not the only problem; access to potable water in the area is another major concern. During the fighting between the Taliban and Northern Alliance, the water infrastructure was severely damaged and many water canals and wells still need rehabilitation.
"There is a problem with water in our area. This water tap was working for two years, but then it broke down and there is no engineer or mechanic to repair it," Ata Habib, an elderly resident of the Bag-e Aalam village, told IRIN. "There is a mosque close to this water tap and residents from several villages around come here for Friday prayers but there is no water for them."
"One of the main issues we have currently is access to clean drinking water and water from the nearby small stream is not drinkable at all during the day time as it is contaminated," another village resident confirmed.
However, UNHCR and its implementing partners are trying to help returnees tackle that problem. "UNHCR's water programme aims to put a water point into areas where there are a high concentrations of returnee families. It's obviously still an issue for a lot of families but what we've tried to do when we are creating or constructing a large number of shelters is also to try to supplement that with a water point," Irwin said.
Some of the residents like Hamidullah and his family address the issue themselves by digging wells in the yards. "It is good and we do not have to bring water from a long distance," he said.
LACK OF JOBS
A third challenge facing returnees is the issue of jobs. As in many post-conflict countries, returnees face the problem of unemployment, while the country is still reeling from more than 20 years of conflict.
"The issue of income is a problem here because there are no jobs and all of the young people are jobless now. That's why many of them go to Pakistan or Iran for six or eight months to work and then come back," Hamidi noted.
Indeed, like many returnees Nozanin's husband was jobless for the last three months due to winter. He is doing odd jobs when he can find a day's work, Nozanin said. "Currently he is working digging canals for the local irrigation system and he is paid some money, which is for the time being enough for us," she said. "We don't have any problems with security and the only major worry is to find a stable job for my husband."
In an effort to sustain themselves, many returnee families are involved in carpet weaving and Nozanin's family is no exception. A vendor makes an agreement with the returnee family and provides all the necessary materials. Then the vendor gives them a deadline, ranging from two to four months, and pays them when the job is complete.
The price for the labour, depending on the size of the carpet and materials, varies, but generally the workers are paid some $50 per sq m, suggesting that they would get $300 for a six sq m carpet. "One of the things that we learned while we were in Pakistan is carpet weaving, Nozanin said, adding that it was a very good source of income for them.
But despite the challenges, many returnees remain optimistic about their future. "Life is slowly improving and we are optimistic about the future," Sali Muhammad said.
Meanwhile, the UN-supported NHDR noted that although many gains had been made over the past two years, the country could still fall into a cycle of conflict and instability unless people's genuine grievances regarding unemployment, health, education and poverty were dealt with adequately.
"Afghans will need and expect the sustained engagement of the international community...All [UN] agencies can and are expected to play a supportive role in longer-term reconstruction involving building state capacity to provide services in education, health, agriculture, national and subnational administration," United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his latest report on the situation in Afghanistan delivered on 22 March.
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