Afghan refugees strain Kabul

Pakistan says another 1.8 million refugees will be returned to Afghanistan within three years.

A cluster of 15 refugee families left their camp in Pakistan six months ago and arrived in Afghanistan homeless. In Karta i-Seh, a southwest Kabul neighborhood so shattered the houses look like sandcastles wrecked by a violent tide, they found a skeleton of a house. They cleaned away debris, threw out shell casings, and slapped down bricks to secure plastic sheets for windows, sure that better days were coming.

Half a year later, the families - ethnic Tajiks who don't use a last name - have no electricity, heat, running water, or plumbing. Only two of the young men have found work, and they have one goal: to save enough money, about $100, to send their family back to Pakistan.

Of the 2 million refugees who have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, up to half have returned not to the cities and villages they lived in before, but to Kabul. The strain on the Afghan capital - home to a US-backed government, over 4,500 foreign peacekeeping troops, and arguably the largest postwar reconstruction-aid effort - has left living conditions here worse than they were a year ago. Possibly intensifying that strain, Afghanistan and Pakistan announced Tuesday plans to close camps and return the remaining 1.8 million refugees to Afghanistan in the next three years.

"My daughters are very angry with me, because I've been telling them for years that our country was good," says Bibi Hanifa, a mother of eight with despairing forest-green eyes.

While international and Afghan officials have tried to convince refugees to return to their old villages, they never discouraged a massive return to Kabul, partly because the security and economic situation in other parts of the country is so precarious. Kabul - the only part of Afghanistan protected by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) - has become an obvious magnet for returning refugees.

The result is an overload on an already broken city's resources. "Kabul is a city which has lost its grip on its ability to control itself, "says Nasir A. Saberi, the deputy minister of urban development and housing.

Power cuts by the city's feeble stations are now frequent. Many middle class Afghans, who last winter had electricity most of the night, now find they can get power for only a few hours a day. Even the privileged international staff here are routinely left without electricity, heat, and hot water.

Mr. Saberi's own chilly office is temporarily out of power. But even more urgent, he says, is the city's huge housing crisis: Few can afford skyrocketing rents, and 160,000 applications for land plots sit unanswered. Meanwhile, about half a million of the city's shelter is illegal: haphazardly built shacks and squatter homes without links to utilities such as electricity, water, and sewage.

Long lines, little reward

Shortly after 9:30 a.m. at Kabul's main power station, men have already lined the halls outside the director's office. In one corner, a military commander demands that his home be hooked up, claiming that's an order from the country's powerful defense minister, Mohammed Qasim Fahim. Rumor has it that bribes to the proper people will get a home or building hooked up for more hours, but officials say that depends how important you are.

Engineer Fariduddin Wafik, the director of power for Kabul, reads from the list of those elite who have nonstop power - the presidential palace, government ministries and ministers, peacekeepers, hospitals, and places like the airport, radio stations, and ambassadors' homes. The rest, he says, must accept it in limited quantities.

"The biggest problem we have is lack of water. Our dams are empty - one of the three doesn't have even a drop of water in it - and most of our energy is hydroelectric," he says. Water has been scarce since a drought set in four to five years ago. Today, the Kabul River looks more like a rivulet - but the city's population has more than doubled since the dam system was designed.

"Our machinery is so old. The winter will be even worse," he whispers, after he shuts a door on the crowd. Only about 40 percent of the city's residents, he estimates, have any electricity at all. Most of the men in line, he says, will go away empty-handed. "Everyone comes here asking for [electricity], but it's impossible. We simply can't provide it to everyone for 24 hours a day," he says. "Personally, when there's a light on in a house, I feel happy. But what can I do?"

Children do their part, standing in three-hour lines at central water pumps, where they fill a few containers before lugging them home.

Minagul, Ms. Hanifa's sister, says some of her children even wait to fetch water for other families, a job that earns them 10 or 15 cents. Thirst is evident on the dusty faces of small children, and in the expressions of older children who remember when it was better.

"We feel very sorry we ever left the camp in Pakistan," Shakila, 15, interrupts, as about 25 family members gather in a common room, its walls still pocked with shell craters. "We came back to our homeland, and look what we found," she scoffs.

Some of the hardships are obvious symptoms of postwar rebirth. Kabul roads, relatively easy to travel a year ago, are choked with traffic. Many prices have doubled in just six months. And each morning, day laborers pour into the city looking for work - mostly in construction - but find too few jobs to go around.

"The master plan has become a sort of stumbling block," says Mr. Mathema. "There is a kind of moratorium on construction, which is a pity because construction is a great income generator." Moreover, courts are choked with property disputes, and inundated with claims from refugees who want their land back, or whose homes - if standing - are occupied by someone else.

Preparing for winter

As Kabul careens toward winter, UN aid agencies and the Afghan government are readying a "Winter Preparedness Plan" that includes handing out items such as tents, blankets, stoves, coal, and plastic sheeting.

But organizers say they need $6.7 million to cover the plan's costs. Distribution has not yet begun, and the biting cold has already arrived.

Qurban, one of the family patriarchs in the squatters' home, is ready to pick up and leave.

"If I could find [President Hamid] Karzai now, I would tear his clothes and ask him where all the help is," says Qurban. "I would ask him, Why did you tell us to come home?"

For some, migrating back and forth between Kabul and Peshawar - whose milder climate once made it the "winter capital" of the Afghans - is time-worn tradition. But it was never the way of life for Qurban, a Kabul-dweller, nor others in his family. The house he lived in before the war is destroyed. Any money his sons can earn now is likely to fund their return to Pakistan, rather than rebuilding.

In kind, some 150 to 200 Afghan families a week are returning to Pakistan - and UN officials worry they won't all make it.

"If they do have the resources to go back to Pakistan for the colder months, than that's good," says Maki Shinohara, the Afghanistan spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "What we're more concerned about are the people who don't have the resources and will end up stranded somewhere in between."

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