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San Francisco Chronicle, July 27, 2008

Returning Afghans survive in tent camps

"A lot of money has been donated to Afghanistan by foreigners, but the government has given us nothing," Mohad said.

James Palmer, Chronicle Foreign Service

Chami-Babrak camp, Afghanistan -- Along a parched sandlot where sporadic bursts of wind kick up spinning clouds of blinding dust, Abdul Quiam wakes from an afternoon slumber. A tent constructed of bamboo poles and threadbare blankets is the weathered 75-year-old man's only defense from a scorching midday sun.

Khewa camp in Pakistan
RAWA: Khewa Camp run by RAWA in the suburbs of Peshawar (Pakistan) was forcibly evacuated by Pakistan government and hundreds of families moved into Afghanistan towards uncertain life.

Quiam and his relatives are among 200 families living in this improvised camp with no potable water, electricity or sewage system on the outskirts of Kabul, the capital. The settlement of ragged tent homes is one of dozens inside Afghanistan for refugees displaced by the Soviet occupation, civil war or Taliban rule. Most have returned dreaming of new homes and jobs after tolerating harsh living conditions in camps in Pakistan and Iran, the two main countries for Afghan refugees.

Today, however, hope for many here centers on surviving another day.

"This is what we have to eat today for six people," said Quiam, as he shakes two large pieces of flat bread above his head.

His son Nasir is the family's only breadwinner, earning $1 a day as a day laborer. With prices for staples increasing almost daily, a $5 sack of 15 pounds of flour can cost nearly a week's income.

5 million repatriated

Since 2002, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has repatriated more than 5 million Afghans - the largest such operation in its 58-year history. That means 1 of 6 Afghans in this nation of 32 million inhabitants has been repatriated. By some estimates, 3 million more are waiting to return.

Most new arrivals have been forced out of refugee camps in Pakistan, whose officials say it is now safe for them to return. Families with U.N. repatriation documents are provided free plots of land by the Afghan government to build homes. But refugees without papers are forced to fend for themselves.

"This is our homeland, but we have no place in it," Quiam said.

Many refugees in the camp hail from rural villages, which have been destroyed by war or whose homes have been taken over by other villagers long ago. Others are former tenant farmers, who can't afford to rent land.

At the same time, Afghan officials have yet to spend $10 billion received by the government of President Hamid Karzai from foreign donors to rebuild the country. While some critics cite government ineptitude, others blame inaction on corruption.

Basherdost Ramazan, the former minister of planning, says both government officials and nongovernmental organizations have misappropriated development funding. "This is unacceptable for the Afghan people," he said.

Noor Mohad, who has lived in this squalid camp for a year and supports seven family members on $3 a day he earns as a day laborer, says it is common knowledge that foreign aid is pouring in.

"A lot of money has been donated to Afghanistan by foreigners, but the government has given us nothing," Mohad said.

The dust-covered rows of tents blanketing the camp blend into the brown earth that runs flat until reaching the foothills of the Khairkhana Mountains. Under a tattered tent, an elderly woman in a black-and-white-checked head scarf sits next to a makeshift cradle and rocks an infant in a pink dressing gown. A barefoot man shovels dirt into a wheelbarrow while a young mother hunches over a pile of slowly rotting tomatoes as she prepares a meal slicing vegetables.

In stark contrast, signs of rapid progress are evident throughout Kabul. The main street running past the Chami-Babrak camp is lined with newly constructed wedding halls and hotels with gleaming glass facades. Nearby, more buildings are quickly rising above the displaced.

The jobless - the unemployment rate is 40 percent - and underprivileged flood city streets. Children, elderly men, and women sheathed in blue burqas beg outside upscale marketplaces and restaurants.

Two years after returning from a refugee camp in Iran, Lacai Ma and her five children commute every day from Chami-Babrak to downtown Kabul to beg from affluent pedestrians and motorists.

"I wouldn't be doing this, but my husband can't make enough money," said Ma, whose husband earns about $2 daily as a porter.

Pakistan closing camps

Refugees continue to pour in from Pakistan, whose government continues to close or consolidate Afghan camps.

On a recent morning at a U.N. refugee reception center in Kabul, some 900 people began the resettlement process. In a rocky parking lot, the tops of buses and the backs of trucks were packed with burlap bags, nylon sacks, wooden tables, metal chairs, fans and bicycles. Boys and girls peered out of bus windows. Those who ventured outside squatted in the shade of the buses.

"For our next meal, I have no money. What can I do but to sleep hungry?" asks the swarthy 38-year-old, who has lived in a tent in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul since returning from Pakistan five years ago.
AFP, May 9, 2008

Badam Gal, 50, spent two decades in northwest Pakistan before the camp where he lived with his wife and five children closed last month. As he surveyed the crowded parking area, he said:

"There is nowhere else for us to go."

The saga of millions displaced by wars

Millions of Afghans fled their nation after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and civil wars that followed.

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 that ousted the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime, about 5 million Afghans settled in Pakistan, and 2.4 million in Iran.

Since 2002, more than 4.5 million Afghan refugees have been repatriated through the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There are still some 2 million Afghans in Pakistan and about 900,000 in Iran, making up the largest refugee group in the world.

Abdul Qadir Zazai, a deputy in Afghanistan's Ministry of Refugees and Returnees, says the government has provided an estimated 10,000 returning families with land and shelter. Plans to accommodate 15,000 more families are stalled, he says, because an additional $500 million is needed to purchase land and construct homes, schools, hospitals, roads and public utilities for new settlements.

SOURCE: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ; Afghanistan Ministry of Refugees and Returnees.

Category: Poverty, Refugees/IDPs - Views: 14085


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