Afghan returnees face struggle to rebuild lives
KALAKAN, Afghanistan, Sept 30 (AFP) - In the bombed out ruins of a community prayer area, 11-year-old Afghan schoolgirl Malalai sits at the back of her open air class dreaming of being a television presenter.
Since her parents do not own a television, her village has no electricity and her school does not even have space to house all its pupils, it is a dream that seems a long way from reality.
But Malalai's optimism is shared by thousands of Afghans who, following the fall of the Taliban late last year, have returned to the homes they abandoned under heavy fighting between the hardline militia and anti-Taliban forces.
Kalakan, a sprawling village 50 kilometres (35 miles) north of Kabul, was the frontline of conflict as the Taliban pushed back the resistance forces of Ahmad Shah Masood in successive battles during their 1996-2001 reign.
Once a lush, fertile and populous area, the surrounding Shomali Plain was reduced to a heavily mined wasteland of ruined houses and arid fields as the Taliban systematically destroyed the region to prevent their rivals' return.
With the Taliban gone and a relative peace returned to Afghanistan, some 1.7 million refugees and thousands of internally displaced people have come to reclaim their old lives.
This has placed a massive burden on the communities to which they have returned. Many are unable to cope with the sudden influx.
Because of its proximity to Kabul, Kalakan is one of the prime catchment areas for returnees travelling via the Afghan capital from refugee camps in neighbouring Pakistan.
At Amir Habibullah Shahid high school, which counts Malalai among its pupils, the strain being placed on Kalakan is visible.
"We have up to 12 new students coming here every day, but we simply don't have the space to accommodate them all, we need more money," said principal Said Abdul Qaum, who recently returned to work after years teaching in secrecy under the Taliban.
Work by a German non-government organisation backed by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), has resulted in the completion of 18 schoolrooms to house up to 1,250 children.
However, with 3,000 pupils queueing up to be educated, the makeshift tented classrooms and open air sessions in the shadow of a mosque are likely to remain a permanent fixture.
"Under canvas and in the open air, there are many lessons happening at once and there are distractions all around. In classrooms, the students can focus on the lessons and they are protected from the weather," said Qaum.
To make matters worse, many of the teaching staff have not been paid for three months and have been forced to borrow cash to make ends meet, he said.
According to UNICEF spokesman Chulho Hyun, Kalakan is typical of other communities in the Shomali plain area.
"The numbers of people are steady and continue to grow and it is difficult to monitor exactly where the returnees are going, but Shomali remains a prime destination and the situation is the same all over."
With the race on to rebuild shattered houses before bitter winter temperatures set in, Hyun says many of the returnees may have come home too soon.
To add to the problems, water shortages in the villages mean many are finding it difficult to return to growing the grapes, apples and grains for which Shomali was once famed.
Under their destruction campaign, the Taliban dynamited a centuries-old underground irrigation system which transported water from distant hills.
"It will take two years to repair all the damage," said Engineer Hussain, who has been working with the UN to bring water to Shomali villages.
"The work is difficult because much of the area is still mined and the water table has dropped from 15 to 25 metres (around 50 to 83 feet), so it is much harder to bore wells," he said.
Nevertheless, optimism prevails in Kalakan, and the Amir Habibullah Shahid high school is seen as the brightest symbol of hope.
"We have nothing here, but I would prefer to send my children to school than have them work," said Haji Abdul Ghani, whose family of nine live in a tent in the ruins of their old house.
"I want my children to learn something for their future."
Copyright (c) 2002 Agence France-Presse
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 09/30/2002 11:58:58
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