Afghanistan

Afghan township struggles to make magic out of mud and mines

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BENEWORSIK, Afghanistan, June 21 (UNHCR) - Getting to Beneworsik township is a problem. You drive past the Bagram airbase in Parwan province north-west of Kabul, continue towards the mountains and turn left into a vast expanse of mud. After 20 minutes of sloshing around, the bespattered four-wheel-drive finally reaches a cluster of half-built houses in the middle of nowhere.

Well, not exactly nowhere - Beneworsik returnee township is located beside a firing range for the Afghan national army. As the sound of gunfire echoes in the distance, Halim, one of the elders living here, said: "We're not worried, we've been through much worse - rockets, bombings."

Halim is among 220 families of returning refugees who received government land in their native Parwan province last year. Many of them had come back from Pakistan between 2002 and 2004, but had no land. Instead, they lived in public buildings or tents in Kabul. Halim campaigned in the 2005 parliamentary election and lobbied hard for the Kabul squatters to be given land in Parwan. He didn't win, but got land for his people last August.

Throughout the country, more than 3,800 families have moved into townships in a government land allocation scheme for landless returnees and internally displaced Afghans that started in 2005. The demand far outweighs the availability of suitable land in mountainous Afghanistan - the government has received 344,000 applications for land, but less than a third of this number has been selected so far. It can take up to two years from the time of application to the time of land distribution.

Five sites - in Nangarhar, Baghlan, Herat, Ghazni and Logar provinces - have been selected as pilot townships that are currently being developed. This includes infrastructural development in the areas of water, roads and some shelter. However, basic services such as health and education are often unplanned, and access to job opportunities is nearly non-existent.

The Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) plans to start 10 more sites next year, subject to the viability of the proposed areas.

Beneworsik is not one of the pilot townships, but it has done quite well considering the odds against it. The authorities moved the residents here just before winter and created a humanitarian emergency as the area was mined and devoid of any infrastructure and services. UNHCR advocated for a minimum of essential services, while the UN Mine Action Centre for Afghanistan stepped in to survey and clear the area of mines after people began arriving.

During the winter months, food and relief supplies were provided by the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the Bayat Foundation and Kinderberg, among others. UNHCR distributed 144 shelter materials for one-room shelters to the most vulnerable families, but many could not complete the work in time and spent the winter in tents.

"That was the first winter, we expected life to be hard," said Halim, who is paying US$120 for his 375-square-metre plot. "But by next winter, the house should be complete. There are still problems with facilities and jobs, but we are grateful to the government for giving us land and we are happy to have a place to call home."

His neighbour, Mohammed Sadique, added, "For four years, I slept in a tent near the Kabul stadium with my family. Here and Kabul, you can't compare it. Although we had jobs there, land was a pressing need for us. Now at least we have a roof over our heads."

MoRR has built wells, but the pumps keep breaking down and do not provide enough drinking and construction water in the summer. Other basic facilities are still lacking. "I am anxiously waiting for a chance for my children to go to school, even if it's just a tent school," said Rogul, a mother of three. UNHCR is working with UNICEF and other agencies to provide more community-based education.

Sadique said their isolation was a concern. "There is no path linking us to the road and no public bus will come here with all this mud. Sometimes we walk to the nearby district. It takes three hours and the whole day is gone," he said, adding: "What will happen when someone is sick?" The government has set up a health post in the area while a Bangladeshi aid group comes to vaccinate the children.

"Unemployment is a big problem here. If there is a road, it will help us to travel out for work," Sadique said. However, he is hopeful: "We expect more families to come from Kabul. We've already demarcated their plots for 200 afghanis ($4) a day, but when they come, they'll need to build their houses, maybe schools and clinics. We hope to have jobs then."

Khan Aga has created his own job and is building a home. The 19-year-old returnee owns the only motorcycle in the township and shuttles to the market to buy gas canisters to sell at a profit of five afghanis a kilo. He also runs a small shop selling groceries and household items.

With a capacity for up to 12,000 families, there is room to grow in Beneworsik township. "I want my home to be green," said Khan Aga, pointing to a vegetable patch in front of his sister's house next door where he has planted onions, potatoes and leeks. It will take time before Beneworsik starts to feel like a real home, but if greens can sprout from mud, there is hope for this returnee settlement.

By Vivian Tan
In Beneworsik, Afghanistan