Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan — The terraced villages near the Afghan-Pakistani border stand in ruins. The walls are smashed and crumbling, the roof beams charred from earlier helicopter assaults or tank blasts. Only the towering walnut and mulberry trees, their trunks ripped with shrapnel, loom with any sense of perseverance over once-carefully irrigated fields. But as one penetrates deeper into Afghanistan, away from the frontier zones the occupying Soviet troops have tried to transform into wastelands, there are signs of life. Though the war damage is serious here too, some houses are inhabited and fields are cultivated. By the time one reaches the fertile valleys of the Jalalabad plain, the transition is complete.
Farms and villages bustle. The land is thickly planted with corn, rice, and sorghum, and the mud-and-stone compounds groan and squawk with cows, donkeys, chickens, and goats. Few buildings have been repaired. Yet, it is difficult to imagine that only a year ago much of this area lay abandoned. ``The last time I was here,'' said British cameraman Peter Jouvenal as we entered a village he had visited in late 1985, ``all I saw were two cats and little else.'' Today, the men, women, and children have returned.
Still only a scattered phenomenon among Afghanistan's frontier provinces, small groups of families, perhaps several hundred in all, have been moving back from the refugee camps in Pakistan to the so-called liberated areas. While it is too soon to say whether the returnees will be permanent, they seem to be more than just caretaker farmers. In the past, refugees have often crossed into Afghanistan during warm months to work the land, heading back for the winter.
``The refugees have been coming home because they know we can protect them from enemy planes,'' declared Haji Abdul Kadir, a leading Hezb-i-Islami (Younis Khales faction) commander in the region. Although he claimed not to have any Stinger missiles at the time, he gestured to the mountains around him. On each strategic top was positioned an antiaircraft battery or heavy machine guns. ``But it is not easy. These are poor people, and we are still fighting a war, even if things look quiet now.''
The Afghan resistance alliance in Peshawar seems reluctant to admit that any of Pakistan's 3.2 million refugees are returning. ``No one is going back,'' insisted alliance spokesman Maulvi Younis Khales. The political parties fear the migration might be viewed as a response to the Soviet-backed Kabul regime's ``national reconciliation'' offer last January. Kabul claims that 100,000 refugees have returned to government-held areas.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says it has no evidence of refugees leaving the camps. In fact, the Geneva-based organization maintains, several thousand Afghans a month are still fleeing the country, particularly from the northern provinces where there has been heavy bombing and fighting.
The UNHCR, however, relies on Pakistani statistics. Refugees could easily be returning, conceded one UNHCR representative, ``but we won't know about it. The refugees would have to de-register. And if any have gone, they have probably left some family members behind to draw rations - just in case.''
What draws Afghans back to war-torn country?
For Haji Kadir, there is no question as to why people have decided to return.
``What life is that in a refugee camp? Their home is here. But they are not going back because of this `national reconciliation.' That is a lie.'' A quiet, authoritative man, Kadir says he would like nothing better than to return to his previous job as a spare-parts' merchant. But right now, he maintains, it is his duty to fight.
Kadir also believes it is good for the mujahideen that civilians are returning. It is not only better for local intelligence, he says, to know what the Soviet and Afghan government security forces are up to, but also for food, which the mujahideen purchase from local farmers. ``If there were no people, we would have to carry in our own supplies, which is expensive,'' he said.
For these reasons, resistance commanders in other parts of Afghanistan are trying to create and maintain conditions that will allow Afghans to remain.
Kabul claims success in wooing civilians
On the government side, officials of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) have been anxious to show the world that national reconciliation is working. Since January, the regime has staged numerous highly publicized ``return to the fold'' events in Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, and other Soviet-controlled towns for mujahideen or ordinary rural Afghans.
Party officials, under heavy guard, have turned up in villages to present local mullahs with money to rebuild mosques, while mujahideen have been invited to lay down their arms for a day and see for themselves what the revolution has achieved. In one reported incident, surprised Afghan women and elderly men on a weekly shopping trip at the Jalalabad bazaar found themselves politely but firmly whisked off in buses to a festive lunch and tour of government facilities, and then returned.
PDPA efforts, however, have generated little enthusiasm at the grass-roots level. Despite war fatigue, most Afghans do not seem willing to accept a peace at any price. The party's appeal to opposition elements and ``neutrals'' to join in a coalition government has failed because it insists on retaining a dominant role. Resistance parties as well as inside commanders interviewed by this correspondent consider this unacceptable.
Nevertheless, if there is ever to be a peaceful settlement to the war, some observers note, the resistance might have to consider some form of PDPA participation - even if only symbolic - to obtain a Soviet pullout.
International relief organizations say over half of Afghanistan's 24,000 villages have been partially or wholly devastated in the war. Almost every house, shop, and mosque in the areas of Nangarhar recently visited by this correspondent has suffered some damage, either from relentless bombing and fighting, or winter erosion.
Where and how most Afghans live today
Before the war began in December 1979, an estimated 85 percent of Afghanistan's 15 million to 17 million people lived off the land. Today, relief sources say, between one-third and a half of the rural population have fled their homes. Over 5 million have gone to Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere; about 3 million have sought refuge internally in cities controlled by the Soviets or in resistance-held zones. Kabul's population, for example, has risen from 700,000 in 1978 to 2.5 million or more.
Supported by international aid organizations, resistance groups are seeking to improve the lot of the 5 million to 8 million civilians struggling for survival in the ``liberated areas.'' As relief representatives point out, this means establishing more health clinics and schools as well as providing agricultural assistance.
Despite the difficulties, such efforts are already under way, and with some success. One resistance development plan, covering five northern provinces, already has emergency relief programs to help people stay. Now they are pushing for projects ranging from animal immunization to reforestation and road construction.
Providing for future generations
``What we are trying to do is provide a combination of emergency and basic development assistance to a country which is caught up in the midst of a devastating war,'' said Peter Rees of the British relief agency Afghan Aid. ``It is sometimes difficult to even consider the long-term point of view when you have got to worry about people getting bombed or convoys ambushed. But we have got to think of the future.''
For a largely rural society, the future means providing farmers with new animals, seeds, and fertilizers, repairing or building irrigation systems, even establishing agricultural cooperatives under resistance control.
More so than before, Afghans realize that they must provide for a new generation. According to observers, many educated Afghans have been killed or have fled. Resistance commanders now recognize that an educated mujahed makes a far better fighter, and are actively encouraging the creation of schools inside Afghanistan.
Among Afghan refugees, there are still relatively few means to complete their studies. ``This is creating incredible frustration among young Afghans who have nowhere to go to become doctors or engineers,'' said Tom Yates of the International Rescue Committee, which runs a secondary education program in Peshawar. ``There is a distinct danger of an entire generation missing out.''
No more than 1,500 Afghan students have been allowed to enter Pakistani higher education institutions. International relief organizations are pushing for more education facilities, but is said to fear that preferential treatment and resources will be given the Afghans, whose presence is already a source of resentment.
One unusual development, however, is the spate of mujahed marriages that seems to be sweeping both the inside of Afghanistan as well as the refugee camps. For a long time, many Afghans felt the war had to end first. But now the resistance parties are encouraging Afghans to marry and produce children. ``It is an extremely encouraging trend,'' one west European diplomat said. ``It shows they are thinking of the future. But it also shows that they are settling in for a long haul.''
Second of four articles. Next: The new sting in mujahideen tactics.