Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 25, 2001
Afghanistan faces a resettlement dilemma
Six million have been displaced in the nation.

At War With Terror

KABUL, Afghanistan - After nearly three years living with about 20,000 other refugees in the squalid former Soviet Union Embassy compound, Dastagir Khan would like to move home.

The Taliban evicted Khan and thousands of his neighbors from their villages and vineyards on the Shamali Plain to create a free-fire zone along the front line north of the capital. With the rapid advance of the Northern Alliance in recent weeks, the battlefield north of Kabul disappeared as quickly as the Taliban retreated to Afghanistan's south.

But there is nothing left for Khan to move to. The Taliban systematically looted, destroyed and mined the houses along the front lines. The Shamali Plain behind the old Taliban lines is a wasteland of shriveled vineyards, wrecked houses, and broken military equipment.

"We are free to leave, but we can't afford to go," said Khan, 45.

Nor is there much appeal to remain in the old Soviet complex, a sprawling compound of open manholes, smoky fires, pungent latrines and crowded rooms. Residents live crammed into 24 four-story apartment buildings, constructed during the Soviet occupation. In three years, refugees say, more than 760 have died in the crowded conditions, including three of Khan's seven children.

With Afghanistan's winter fast approaching, a humanitarian crisis is looming. More than six million Afghans - a quarter of the population - are displaced. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says that if peace prevails, Afghanistan is facing one of the largest resettlements of modern history.

But a resettlement would require a stable government and substantial international investment. Talks begin tomorrow in Bonn between various Afghan groups opposed to the Taliban about creating a new government. Meanwhile, Sadako Ogata, the Japanese government's representative on Afghan issues, estimated it would cost $10 billion over 10 years to rebuild Afghanistan.

The residents occupying the filthy old Soviet embassy complex say the international community, especially the United States, is obligated to help the country rebuild after it bombed so many sites.

"People are hoping they don't forget us," said Hamidullah, 58, head of the residents' association. "If they do, we'll just cross them off our lists and hate them from now on."

The Taliban moved the residents out of the Shamali Plain in 1998 just before the Northern Alliance recaptured much of the farming region. The Taliban hired thousands of workers from Kabul to destroy the houses and rip up the fields to deprive the opposition of shelter and food.

The refugees were first relocated to Jalalabad and then moved to the embassy complex, a double-walled compound of drab, uniform buildings battered by years of machine-gun fire and grenade explosions.

The complex contains one school and one clinic with one doctor, but other services are limited. Care International provides several tanker trucks of drinking water and cleans the latrines monthly. A French humanitarian organization distributes food.

"People are not living in good conditions," said Mohammed Daoud, the only physician at the health clinic next to the embassy. "There isn't proper food. There isn't proper sanitation. If people were just allowed to live in the open, it would be better than cooped up like this."

One or more families are assigned to each room, which are darkened by the smoke of wood fires and furnished with rudimentary belongings - a kettle, a basin, a few cushions.

"The Taliban forced us to stay here," said Khan. "We are like people who have been kidnapped."

Since the Northern Alliance recaptured the Shamali Plain, some residents have returned to their old houses to assess the damage.

"I visited my home recently," said Abdul Wahid, who is about 40 years old and has eight children. "There is no house. There is no timber. There is no wood." He once grew wheat, mulberries, cows and sheep. "All killed, all destroyed."

Hamidullah, the head of the residents' association, says Afghanistan is a victim of the Cold War: After being occupied by the Soviet Union, Afghanistan suffered at the hands of a war prolonged by U.S. aid to the mujaheddin holy warriors.

"The main problem of this country was the Russians," said Hamidullah. "The second problem was the Americans for supporting the mujaheddin. These two powers caused all this misery." home page   
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