One year later: A reporter revisits Kabul refugees

Bibi Hanifa lives in the skeleton of a building, where an unforgiving wind rushes down from the snow-capped Hindu Kush and meets no resistance. Her home, the abandoned headquarters of Kabul Power and Water, has no doors or windows, its dark and cold structure resembling in some ways a dark cave.

Encouraged to return to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban two years ago, the "former" refugee and her family soon found themselves homeless.

Save for a few blankets, bags of food, and pocket money they received from the United Nations when they crossed the border from Pakistan 1-1/2 years ago, they say they have received no assistance.

I walked into Ms. Hanifa's world here a year ago, and sat shivering on the skinny floor cushions. I wondered how any family could survive here.

I soon learned that they had just buried an infant, Bibi Hanifa's niece. The family blamed it on the bitter weather. They were living in one room with no electricity, no heat, no plumbing, and no access to schools or healthcare. Despite their dire needs, help from aid agencies was not reaching them.

Hanifa was my immediate favorite. She had the startling khaki green eyes that only Afghans seem to have. She said she could not offer tea because of Ramadan, but she began to talk.

She told me she was ashamed of herself: She had brought up her eight children on dreams of returning home, and now they were angry with her for bringing them here. Their only hope, she said, was to scrape together enough money to go back to Pakistan for the winter.

I told her it was just a matter of time

At the time, I told Hanifa that with so much international aid pouring into Kabul, assistance was available - it might just be a matter of tracking it down. I gave her suggestions of places to look for help, and left, thinking it would only be a matter of time before conditions improved.

Now, a year later, I am the one who feels ashamed. Little has changed in Karta i-Seh, a neighborhood of southwest Kabul with so many collapsed buildings that it almost looks as if an earthquake had struck. Hanifa says things are getting worse because assistance is scarce - and Afghanistan is no longer a central focus.

"Last year was better, because at least they provided us with some coal and blankets," she says. "This year we got nothing."

Hanifa struck me as beautiful last year. Today, she looks nearly a decade older. But her 3-year-old daughter has hardly grown and her hair looks more like an infant's than a toddler's.

"Last year, the foreign people were paying attention to us, but this year, they don't even ask if we need help," says Hanifa. "They said they would provide us with windows and doors, but nothing came and they never came back."

I ask who "they" were, but no one in the family is literate, rendering the workings of foreign-aid groups, the UN, and the Afghan government a mystery to them. The only visitors in the past three months have been from a government ministry. They came to inspect the site and said they would evict the squatters and reclaim the land for Kabul Power and Water. They haven't returned yet.

I was drawn here because this is a part of the city that the world sometimes takes notice of, and yet quickly forgets. The families of Kart i-Seh saw some of the city's most devastating fighting during the 1990s. Most here now are refugees - about 2.5 million of whom have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Not all are happy they made the trip. The families here say they were better off while living in Iran and Pakistan, and many dream of going back. And UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has pulled foreign staff out of a wide belt of southern and eastern Afghanistan after a French citizen was shot dead in Ghazni last month.

Several billion dollars are supposed to be going to Afghanistan's reconstruction. At the UNHCR office in Kabul, an official tells me the aid organization has supervised the construction of 40,000 homes for refugees, mostly in rural areas, and that it will build another 60,000. But only 1,500 of them will be in Kabul itself, where most of the returnees have come in search of work and services. "The goal is to get people to return to their places of origin," says Nadar Farhad of UNHCR. "We're focusing on the rural areas."

The current trend, it seems, is to give construction materials to refugees and encourage them to build their own homes. But that works only for rare refugees who own a plot of land in the crowded capital.

Farida Anwari is among the many who don't. Around the corner from Bibi Hanifa, past the bombed-out, rusting military vehicles which serve as jungle gyms for the children, Ms. Anwari's mud hut looks more like a mound of packed earth with an entrance than a house.

Some warmth on the earthen walls

Inside, her home comes alive with pictures of movie stars and models. The shiny pin-ups contrast with the drab earthen walls, with twigs poking through like veins.

These pinups are what Anwari's uncle, Mohammed Issak, sells to survive: pictures of Indian movie stars, Japanese models, and blond children who transport the imagination far from the mud hut with no electricity.

Anwari once lived more comfortably. Her husband, a government officer, was killed in a rocket attack in the early 1990s. Afterwards, she fled to Pakistan with her four children, whom she supporting by working as a maid. When the new Afghan government of Hamid Karzai took over in late 2001, she says, word spread: It was time to go home.

"That's why we decided we should come back to our country," says Anwari, whose round, girlish face is framed by an bright orange scarf.

Arriving in Kabul, Anwari found that her old home was destroyed. Desperate for shelter, she came here. With even the abandoned buildings overflowing, they had nowhere to live. Heruncle, also widowed in the war, helped her construct the mud house and moved in.

"When I came from Peshawar, I was very hopeful that the government would find a home for us. And the other hope was that I could get the children into school and I would work," says Anwari. "When I came, I found absolutely nothing." She can't find work, and says she can't get her children enrolled in schools because she has no money for fees. "I don't care about my life now, but I care about my children. If I could find work, I would spend it on their education."

If it weren't for her uncle's business, they wouldn't have enough to eat. Each day, Mr. Issak piles his pictures, stickers, and plastic flowers onto a wooden stand and carries it to a busy commercial district. There, he sells his goods to earn maybe 50 afghanis a day - about $1. Lately, he says, Taliban-type fundamentalists have been harassing him, telling him that his business, with its racy pictures of midriff-baring actresses, is an affront to Islam.

"They yell at me, 'Why are you selling these pictures? You'd be better being a pimp,' " complains Issak. He's been beaten several times, he says, by local police. "I tell them I'm doing this to support my family," he says. "If someone would give me a job, I'd do anything."

They've been to UNHCR several times to ask for help. They received only a tent to put over the hut. Anwari hopes that, and perhaps some distributions of coal or wood, will get them through the winter.

Allah Nazar lives on the floor of a building where the ceiling is half collapsed, giving the children a round-the-clock view of the traffic below. Until recently, he was out working. But a cement mixer fell on his hand; he lost a finger and damaged several others. It is not clear if he'll be able to do manual labor again.

"To whom should we go? I don't know anymore," says Nazar, whose face is etched by deep lines. "We keep going to complain but they don't care." He fears officials will return to eject them.

"They said we should leave building because they're going to start work here. And I said, 'Well, you'll have to kill all of us and our families first, because we have nowhere to go,' " he says.

"People still living in Pakistan ask me, how's the life in Kabul?" he says, and shakes his head. "I tell them, don't go. Don't return to your homeland. Can you imagine saying that?"

Organizations that help
CARE

www.care.org

800-422-7385

The World Food Programme

www.wfp.org

212-963-8364

Save the Children

www.savethechildren.org

800-728-3843

UNICEF

www.unicef.org

212-326-7000

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

www.unhcr.ch

011-41-22-739-8111

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