MASLACH CAMP, AFGHANISTAN — Hope would seem an unlikely guest at this muddy, crude refugee camp in western Afghanistan.
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."
One task is to rebuild the refugees' confidence that they can survive on the outside, Mr. Gignac says, since the food in the camps is "like welfare," and difficult to give up.
The UN is hoping to see 10 to 15 percent of the people in Maslach return immediately, and an equal number by summer.
"The key to success is the presence of relief agencies in the districts," says Gignac. "Our mere presence sometimes helps to reassure them." Leading the effort to create that presence is the UN-affiliated International Organization for Migration (IOM), which runs Maslach Camp, and is charged with taking people home.
IOM is quickly putting together kits of seeds, fertilizers, and basic farming tools for returning families. The Herat planting season is already in swing; planting in Badghis Province to the northeast - where 60 percent of the displaced at Maslach Camp come from - begins in two to four weeks. The higher-altitude Ghor Province to the west comes after that.
"This is Afghanistan's last chance," says Danny Gill, senior operations officer for IOM in Herat. "After 25 years of instability, all the populace realize that they've got to get it right."
So do the relief agencies, which are trying to ensure that everything from food handouts to schools to irrigation improvements are available, so that those who finally go home will stay.
"It's a comprehensive package that people need to go back, to see a secure environment," says Elisabeth Settemsdal, the UN Humanitarian Affairs officer in Herat. "Many spent all their belongings to get to Herat. If they are asking for tractors, they have unrealistic expectations. But rumors travel fast. If people can reestablish themselves, that will filter back to the camps."
Such good news, if it comes, may not convince skeptics like Abdullah, a nomad with a long white beard and shaved upper lip, living in a gray canvas tent. "No, I won't go back," he says resolutely. "If the UN agencies give us food here, we will stay forever."
"Most of them prefer to stay in the camp," explains IOM field officer Mohammed Rafi. "They have impossible dreams about getting tractors and oxen."
Overcoming such concerns is the trick for the relief agencies, says Hubert Binon, who manages the Maslach Camp for IOM. "If they go, and feedback is good, then we won't be able to stop them," he says. "It's still their house, still their land; their fathers and grandfathers were there. Like farmers everywhere, they are glued to the ground."
To ensure that glue sticks, the Danish committee alone has provided IOM with 200 tons of wheat seed and 200 tons of fertilizer, of a variety that is fast-growing, but requires rain.
Rain levels are normal this winter so far, but if the rain stops, crop failure again could result. "What concerns me is the time frame," says DACAAR's Mr. Brennan. His agency is one of the "host recipients" in one district. There it will be responsible for making sure that every displaced person who steps off an IOM bus is put on UN World Food Program distribution lists.
While Afghanistan no longer is plagued by the "donor fatigue" that starved projects of cash for years, the flip side of all the new attention is that Afghanistan could become a "beggar nation," Brennan says. To avoid that, this is a one-time emergency seed distribution.
Just the possibility of change is sparking renewed energy.
"Even if they don't have a lot of hope, there is a great contrast to last year," says a European relief worker who asked not to be named. "Afghans were so pessimistic and black about the future. Now they are more and more enthusiastic."