Afghanistan

Afghanistan at the crossroads: Afghan returnees assess the lay of the land

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KABUL, Afghanistan, November 19 (UNHCR) - Land and shelter are among the biggest problems facing Afghan refugees returning home after decades in exile. Many never owned land in this mountainous country; others' ancestral homes were occupied in their absence. Yet others have seen their families grow in size over the years and can no longer survive in their place of origin.

In late 2005, the Afghan government started a land allocation scheme for landless returnees and internally displaced people (IDPs). So far, some 300,000 families have applied for land under this scheme, but only 32,586 families have received temporary land ownership deeds. The problems do not cease once they get their plots. Challenges in these townships include a lack of water and basic services such as health and education, as well as a shortage of livelihood opportunities.

The Beneworsik land allocation scheme is a case in point. Located 45 kilometres north-east of Kabul in Parwan province, this township is now home to more than 450 families of returnees and IDPs who used to live in slums in Kabul. Some inhabitants think it offers good opportunities, others complain about the lack of work and have left to become squatters in Kabul. Four of them tell their stories in their own words:

Soorgul, 32, heads a family of eight, including six children. He also owns sheep and chicken at the Beneworsik township.

"I was an IDP for 10 years. I fled from Ghorband in Parwan province to the Shomali Plain to Kabul. We were living in tents in Kabul when the government moved us to Beneworsik. There were about 180 families with us. There was nothing and winter was coming. Life was difficult in the first month. We had to dig trenches to create a bunker to stay warm. One month later, we got emergency one-room shelters. That gave us reason to hope, at least our children had a roof over their heads for a change.

"This year, an Italian NGO [Cesvi] provided 160 shelters for the other families. That gave us work all year. Some families wouldn't move in until the whole house was completed, so they needed to hire people like me for building. I'm hopeful. This plot is allocated for 10,000 families. If 1,000 plots are allocated every year, we'll have jobs for another decade. And as we work, we save money. You must be wondering, how can such a poor family buy and feed our sheep and chicken? It's an investment in case the work runs out. At least we can survive through the winter with this livestock.

"Some people couldn't struggle like us, so they went back to Kabul. I can't have my children begging on the streets. I'm happy to live with the difficulties here, but not to return as a displaced person to Kabul. Here we have land, shelter, a place to bury the dead. This is the solution. The families who went back to Kabul made a mistake. I'm confident they'll come back for a long-term solution."

Khan Agha, 20, lives with his widowed mother, his sister, and his brother's family in three adjacent plots at Beneworsik.

"We were among the first to return from Iran in 2002. We had nothing and stayed in a tent village beside the Kabul stadium. For four or five years, I sold samosas and burgers to staff of the Ministry of Energy and a TB hospital. I made US$20-US$30 a day. My brother was also working. So when we moved to Beneworsik, we had money to build immediately.

"At Beneworsik, I used to run a grocery shop and provide gas from the market. This year I started doing land demarcation and building foundation walls for the Italian shelters. I've also been selected to maintain and repair the 12 water pumps.

"If someone wants to work, there is work. My neighbour is relying on assistance from NGOs. Those who went back to Kabul - some were urbanized in Pakistan or Iran and expected a lot. Some traditionally relied on their women to sell bangles in the streets, and there was no market here. Maybe some didn't have a house before, and didn't know how to do construction. I understand their concerns, but they should stop complaining and waiting for people to come and help them.

"My family has three plots of land here. We just bought another 400-square-metre plot across the street for US$1,000. It's an investment, a good way to spend my savings. When they build a proper road, it'll double in price.

"There are two main problems in Beneworsik. There's no proper school, no regular building or education system like in Kabul, with different classes and separate for boys and girls. There are also no long-term jobs. I'm waiting for the school and electricity projects to start, but what will happen after all this is completed?

"We've just started our lives. I know what is needed to start a township - time, energy, people - it'll be a long journey for us. If I make enough money, I plan to go back to Iran next year with a passport and visa. Not to work, but to be a tourist."

Ahmed Rasul, 28, recently moved his wife and six children from Beneworsik to a tented squatter camp in Kabul's District Eight.

"I lived in Jalozai camp in Pakistan for about 25 years. Three of my children were born there. We decided to return when we heard Afghanistan was now independent and President Karzai announced that all refugees should return and get land. We lived at different sites in Kabul before we were moved to Beneworsik.

"At Beneworsik, it was just a plot of land. There was nothing there. We collected firewood from the mountains nearby. There was the danger of mines. There were no jobs, so the land wasn't useful for us.

"We came back to Kabul in June. Now I work in the fruit market and wash cars. My wife says we have nothing here - no firewood, no charcoal, no blanket. The weather is getting cold. It's difficult, but it's better than Beneworsik. At least I am working and my children are getting bread and charity from the nearby families.

"Of course we are worried about the children's education. I wish I had gone to school. I'm illiterate, that's why I'm facing so many problems. But we have no choice, we have to tolerate the situation.

"My eldest son Rehmanullah washes cars for about 30 Afghanis (60 US cents) per car. The younger ones clean the floor mats. They also beg. Altogether, we make about 250-300 Afghanis a day at best. It's enough to live. In future, if work conditions improve at Beneworsik, we prefer to stay there. Otherwise we'll have to keep moving - spending winter there and summer in Kabul."

Fadal Mohammed, 40, also left Beneworsik for the Kabul tented camp with his wife and five children.

"Beneworsik is better than Kabul - we have clean houses there. The problem is work. We can't afford our daily expenses. That's why we have to come here. Health services at Beneworsik are no good. Last year, my daughter fell sick there. At midnight, I had to get a taxi and spend 2,000 Afghanis to take her to a children's hospital in Kabul. There's a government clinic at Beneworsik, but it has limited medicines and even more limited manpower. For births, we must transfer the women to Kabul.

"In Kabul, the price of commodities is too high. Our daily wage is not enough to cover our needs. The kids go to houses nearby and ask for leftovers. But we can still earn money through winter. We'll probably stay in Kabul till at least December. We can erect walls around the tent to keep warm. While I'm here, I lock my house in Beneworsik. I'm not worried someone will occupy it in my absence - security is good and there's a police post. I just bought some straw to plaster the walls with. I'll go back tomorrow to work on the roof."

By Vivian Tan,
In Kabul and Beneworsik, Afghanistan