Afghans heading home, but warily
MASLACH CAMP, AFGHANISTAN
Hope would seem an unlikely guest at this muddy, crude refugee camp in western Afghanistan.Skip to next paragraph
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But for Timor Shah and his family - among a sea of Afghans forced by three years of drought to live here - the expectation of a better life back in their prewar homes is starting to grow.
"I am an optimist," Mr. Shah says, as his wife and children make bread and warm themselves around a homemade pit oven. "If we receive food and seeds by planting time, we can go back home."
Whether Shah and others can return to their fields soon depends on how well, and how fast, the United Nations and relief agencies here can mobilize.
The world is watching closely. Afghanistan is the target of unprecedented goodwill, with $5 billion pledged so far to help rebuild after a generation of war. Successfully orchestrating the first mass homecomings - due to begin today - could set the stage for future returns.
"It's extremely critical to show international support for people to get back to where they belong," says Roy Brennan, with the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR) in Herat, the capital of western Afghanistan. "We are scrambling. This initial step is going to make a big difference. It needs to be positive or you will never change people's minds."
Shah's sanguine attitude is not shared by most refugees: Only 10 percent of the 113,000 people registered at this sprawl of tents and mud houses say they are ready to go home. But the United Nations and relief agencies are racing to create conditions that would convince many more to return to a planting season that is already under way.
Nature is cooperating - normal rains have fallen for the first time in four years. And with the collapse of the Taliban last year now a memory, security has returned to most areas, although Human Rights Watch is warning that ethnically motivated attacks and clashes between rival warlords remain a danger.
Many Afghans, after years of violence and hardship, are too afraid to go home.
Turning despair into hope - and changing the minds of the majority, who would rather receive free aid handouts and wait for better conditions - is the newest challenge for relief workers.
The sheer scale of the operation is daunting. More than 2 million Afghan refugees are in Iran; another 2 million are in Pakistan. The country is peppered with displaced populations, though the knot of humanity at Maslach Camp - 15 miles west of Herat, on the road to Iran - is among the largest.
Over the winter, when one British newspaper dubbed Maslach the "worst camp in the world," up to 800 new arrivals a day swelled the population on this gently sloping barren plain. While ample water pumps and food handouts would make this camp the envy of many African refugees, conditions are grim, with the wood doors of many of the 3,000 latrines burned as fuel.
A Taliban military base not far away was bombed several times during the American air campaign last fall. Aid meant for the camp then was often stolen by the Taliban for its fighters, Afghan relief workers say.
Until now, the "hunger belt" that spread across the north forced entire villages to sell their livestock to traders abroad. In the river valley of Herat, once described by the Greek historian Herodotus as the breadbasket of Central Asia, many ate grass to survive.
These are lean times, and going home is not a decision taken lightly by Afghans caught in the vortex of hunger and war.
"Their coping mechanism has completely eroded," says Emmanuel Gignac, head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Herat. "They need to see a big change in their village before they will rejoice."