YAKOWLANG, 5 March (IRIN) - Two years ago, Ahmad Naqib was struggling to survive the winter in the mountains of Afghanistan's central Highlands. Behind him lay the smoking town of Yakowlang, where he had owned a shop, and four of his cousins had been shot in an organised execution. In one of the worst atrocities by the country's then rulers, more than 300 people were massacred and Yakowlang's buildings razed when the Taliban retook the town on 8 January 2001.
Exacting retribution on the mainly ethnic Shia Hazaras for the brutal struggle to effect the recapture, the predominantly Sunni Pashtuns of the Taliban essentially destroyed the town, which lies five hours' drive west of Bamyan.
But as the residents of Yakowlang marked the massacre earlier this year, there are clear signs that the town is literally rising from the ashes. Ahmad Naqib told IRIN in Yakowlang that most of those who fled the Taliban attacks had now returned and resumed their lives. "Compared to other parts of the country it's not good, but compared to last winter, life is much better."
On the main street, most shops are sporting new doors and windows, and many other buildings are being reconstructed, mud brick by mud brick. The first satellite TV dishes have even sprouted on new roofs. When the Taliban torched the bazaar, all that remained were the mud walls of shops.
Javad, who sells kerosene heaters, said only ashes greeted him when he returned to Yakowlang a year after escaping from the fighting. "When I came back and saw the destruction I felt like I couldn't stay any more." But with the help of US $100 from the international aid organisation CHF, he was able to rebuild his shop and resume his business. CHF's head of office in Yakowlang, Hussaindad, told IRIN that more than 600 shops had been rebuilt with help by the agency, which had also built a pavement and guttering down the main street.
More than 500 houses had also been rebuilt, and families given US $50 and two or three sheep to help restart the region's livestock industry. As a lifetime resident, Hussaindad also escaped to the mountains when the Taliban arrived. "When I came back, I thought life was not possible in Yakowlang any more, and it was very frightening. Why had they killed the people and destroyed the houses and killed the animals?"
However, with many poor people having no option other than to try and restart their lives in the town, Hussaindad chose to stay and help with the reconstruction. "CHF decided to come here because, compared to other parts of the country, the town was totally destroyed, the economy ruined and people suffering," he said.
Despite the efforts by a number of groups to assist the people here, Hussaindad said much more help was needed. "It was a big massacre and people should never forget this. But already I feel many have forgotten about it and the people's misery." He estimated that another 2,500 homes would need to be rebuilt to house all those likely to return after the winter.
"Compared to last year, things are better, because people can do business and have houses for winter. But it's not as good as before the Taliban, because at least people had crops and animals then." The administrator in Yakowlang for the NGO Solidarites, Ghulam Mohammad, told IRIN it had helped rebuild 1,500 houses in the past year and expected to build another 600 this year. "The situation is better than a year ago, but still the people are suffering."
Solidarites would continue to distribute non-food items such as clothes, mattresses and blankets to needy families over the winter, and hoped to provide jobs for local men on road clearance and reconstruction programmes. "But I think a lot more help from NGOs and foreign countries is needed," he said.
In Yakowlang's main street, where snow still lines the roadside, it is still possible to find spent shells from the days of the fighting. A 500-metre walk from one end to the other talking to residents is an emotional exhumation as they recount how brothers, cousins, fathers and sons were killed by the Taliban. Sitting in his general store, Mohammad Anvar Fazil told IRIN how he lost a brother, an uncle and a cousin during the massacre.
"Yes, I am alive, but does this make me lucky?" Happy to have been able to reopen his shop and restart his life, he stresses that while bricks and beams are important for the people of Yakowlang, so too is remembering what happened to them and the horrors of the war. "All the people of the world should know about this," he stressed.
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