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The New York Times, August 8, 2011

In Afghanistan, a Village Is a Model of Dashed Hopes

These returning families have since failed to gain a foothold in an Afghanistan that nearly a decade later is still struggling to get on its feet

By Jack Healy

Alice-Ghan lacks running water, so children go several times a day to fetch water in jugs
Alice-Ghan lacks running water, so children go several times a day to fetch water in jugs. (Photo: Lynsey Addario / The New York Times)

This tiny village rose from the rocky soil with great hopes and $10 million in foreign aid, a Levittown of identical mud-walled houses built to shelter some of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans set adrift by war and flight.

Five years later, the village of Alice-Ghan and those good intentions are tilting toward ruin. Most of its 1,100 houses have been abandoned to vandals and the lashing winds. With few services or jobs within reach, hundreds of residents have moved away — sometimes even to the slums and temporary shelters they had sought to escape.

“No people,” said Amir Mohammed, a village elder, as he threaded through the grid of dirt roads, pointing at the vacant, identically built two-room houses.

The settlement, a little more than an hour’s drive north of the capital, Kabul, on the border with Parwan Province, is one of 60 scattered across the country. It has become a demonstration of the miscalculations and obstacles that have thwarted so many similar efforts to tackle huge problems like poverty, hunger, illness and dislocation in Afghanistan.

Most of the families that moved to Alice-Ghan had fled to Iran or Pakistan during the chaotic civil war that ended when the Taliban took control in 1996. Sensing opportunity, the refugees were among millions of Afghans who returned after the American-led invasion. A new village, built fresh, seemed like a chance to start again.

“At the beginning, when we first came here, we thought the government finally understood us, that we finally had a chance,” said Nuragah, a resident who uses only one name. “But the problems just added up.”

These returning families have since failed to gain a foothold in an Afghanistan that nearly a decade later is still struggling to get on its feet. While the number of displaced Afghans has fallen since the early days of the war, refugee advocates warn that growing numbers of civilians are now fleeing their homes because of the country’s continuing violence and instability.

More than 150,000 Afghans were displaced during the past 12 months, a 68 percent increase compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Many trickle back home once the shooting stops. Others end up with relatives, in district and provincial centers, or inside tent cities and shantytowns on the edges of Kabul’s sprawl.

More than 150,000 Afghans were displaced during the past 12 months, a 68 percent increase compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Many trickle back home once the shooting stops. Others end up with relatives, in district and provincial centers, or inside tent cities and shantytowns on the edges of Kabul’s sprawl. In all, there are about 437,810 displaced Afghans within the country.
The New York Times, Aug. 8, 2011

In all, there are about 437,810 displaced Afghans within the country.

Humanitarian concerns aside, refugee advocates contend that the growing numbers of poor, displaced Afghans offer the Taliban a wide pool of potential recruits, and pose a long-term risk to the country’s stability, especially as NATO troops begin to head home.

Government officials said some resettlement villages in eastern Afghanistan had flourished. But many are struggling to retain residents or break ground on promised homes. In all, about 5,000 families live on land designed for as many as 300,000, according to the Afghan Refugees Ministry.

A lack of electricity and running water has driven residents away. Many of the sites are deep in the countryside, far from any reliable source of work, and few people have cars. The land is often rocky and dry, with little irrigation. Traveling into town to buy groceries can take more than an hour.

“We have received no clean water, no jobs, no roads,” said Salam Khan, an elder in the Barikab settlement, a short drive from Alice-Ghan. He said its population of 640 families had fallen by more than half in the past two years. “We still have not received anything.”

Corruption has also dogged the program. Families with homes have fraudulently acquired free plots of land with the hopes of flipping them later. Some of the government officials who gave out the home sites were accused of fraud, and a few ended up in jail, according to the United Nations.

Set against a moonscape of mountains, amid patches of land mines, the village of Alice-Ghan began as an attempt to do some good for displaced Afghans living around the capital.

The Afghan government provided the land. The Australian government gave nearly $9 million. The United Nations Development Program took the lead in building homes, schools, roads and water tanks.

But today water is trucked in, while efforts to build a permanent water-storage facility progress only haltingly. Several times a day, children push wheelbarrows to storage tanks to fill plastic jugs for laundry and cooking.

A mobile health clinic visits on Tuesdays, but residents said there was no reliable health care within miles for emergencies.

The district center is about five miles away, a 30-minute drive across bone-jarring dirt roads. A newly paved highway now offers a quicker path to Kabul’s markets and employers, but most of the men in the village do not have cars. They rely on a bus donated by the United Nations development wing that makes the trip four times a day.

Cultural blind spots also angered residents. With no high exterior walls built around each home, women in this deeply conservative village could not walk outside their small houses or to backyard outhouses without risking the shame of public exposure.

The United Nations and the Australian government said they were committed to making the village work, despite its problems. Officials said they were continuing to spend money to improve the water supply and bring in more reliable transportation and health services. They said aid workers were reassessing what the villagers wanted most, and trying to figure out how to meet their needs.

About 150 to 200 families have decided to stick it out. They have borrowed money to build brick-and-mud walls, and have added guest rooms and kitchens to the tiny houses.

Hanifa Shamsala, a widow with orange streaks in her hair and three children, said she had no choice but to stay. She could not afford rent in Kabul, and had nothing but the home she was given. “Where would I go?” she said. “What would I do?”

Most residents, however, are ready to go.

“It is better to leave this place,” said Amir Mohammed, the elder. “It is a desert. There is nothing.”

Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting.

Category: Poverty, Refugees/IDPs - Views: 6263