Around the village of Ali Khel, the fields are heavy with ripening corn. Only a few houses have been damaged by 10 years of war, and the children herding goats and cows by the river have little to fear.
But for Muhammad Lawang, a turbaned Pathan farmer, it is a false picture: Returning recently from a refugee camp in Pakistan to assess conditions, he found Ali Khel surrounded by a bleak landscape of bombed villages, barren fields, and wilted fruit orchards. And beyond the village's periphery, the only harvests to be reaped were thousands of land mines. (Mines threaten returnees, Page 12.)
Afghan resistance fighters captured Ali Khel from government forces earlier this year. Today, Mr. Lawang has been able to plant some corn on his land. ``But I can't plant over there,'' he explains, pointing to his main terraced fields, now in a no-man's land of crumbling walls, weeds, and silted-up irrigation channels.
Nearby lies a grave, with green-and-white prayer flags snapping in the wind. It is for one of Lawang's sons, who was killed a few months ago.
Lawang gestures to shattered buildings on the hillside: ``That was my house. I have not been there yet. We must rebuild our homes, clear the mines, and grow enough food before we can bring our families.''
Lawang's plight is one that will confront millions of Afghan refugees, if they return home. For the legacy of Afghanistan's war, which began in the early days of the April 1978 communist takeover and intensified after the Soviet invasion some 20 months later, is a brutal one, one that will be felt for decades to come.
``Apart from the human tragedy, the material destruction has been enormous,'' says Anders Fange, director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, a leading private voluntary agency that operates from Peshawar, Pakistan. ``Whole regions have been devastated as if they have been nuked. The people have gone, leaving only ruins, wild dogs, flies, and rats. A lot of good agricultural land has not been cultivated for years. To go back and start up again will be like breaking new soil.''
To help ease this process, the United Nations on Oct. 12. officially launched Operation Salam (``peace'' in Arabic) - a massive recovery and repatriation effort.
The UN, which played the key role in mediating the current Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, is seeking more than $2 billion for a three- to four-year program that includes land-mine clearance and the setting up or repairing of health centers, schools, irrigation systems, industries, and communications. Program coordinators have recieved pledges of $892.4 million, including a surprise Soviet offer of $600 million. Depending on security conditions, more than 5 million refugees as well as about 2.5 million internally displaced Afghans will be helped to go back and rebuild their lives.
``The war has not only prevented the normal development of our country. It has really destroyed it,'' says Hedayet Amin Arsala, an Afghan economist and former World Bank official. ``Whatever we had built up over the last 40 or 50 years with a lot of sweat and blood has been ruined.''
According to Afghan civilians and guerrillas, international relief workers, diplomats, and other observers:
More than 1.3 million Afghan men, women, and children have died as a direct result of the conflict, many in Soviet operations aimed at terrorizing civilians.
Tens of thousands of Afghans have been maimed for life. Hundreds of thousands have been widowed or orphaned.
Three-quarters of Afghanistan's 22,000 villages have been destroyed or abandoned. One-third of its prewar population of about 15 million has been forced to flee across the borders, forming the world's largest refugee population.
Farm production has fallen to less than half of prewar levels, because of the flight of farm labor, loss of oxen for plowing, lack of fertilizers, and degeneration of wheat-seed quality.
Schools, health centers, mosques, roads, bridges, and buildings have been bombed, shelled, or otherwise shattered.
More than 100,000 skilled Afghans, ranging from teachers to doctors and engineers, have fled the country.
An end to hostilities still seems distant, despite the phased withdrawal of the Soviet Army's 115,000 to 120,000 occupation troops, which is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 15 next year.
Some guerrilla commanders say it could take up to a year or more for the Soviet-backed regime of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan to fall. As the struggle for control of Kabul, the capital, intensifies, resistance and relief sources fear a surge in internecine strife.
But despite the turmoil, some positive aspects are emerging. ``The sufferings we have gone through are of course incalculable,'' Mr. Arsala says. ``Yet despite all that, I think it [the war] has ultimately strengthened Afghans.''
``Afghans have learned a great deal from the war,'' says Bernard Dupaigne, head of France's Museum of Mankind, and a specialist on Afghanistan. ``They have fought together against a huge nation, the Soviet Union, and are winning. This has given them confidence. They have also become more sophisticated, more modern, and they know that they can never go back as before. Now they are ready to develop their country.''
For instance, refugees in Pakistan have learned the benefits of health care, education, and basic technology, such as electricty and water pumps, and more efficient farming methods. And, through regular contact, Afghans are more adept at dealing with foreigners.
More important, the war may have created a sense of nationhood. ``For the first time, there is a comprehensive sense of what it is to be an Afghan, a watandur, a countryman,'' says Witney Azoy, an American Fulbright scholar and writer with years of experience in Afghanistan.
Previously, the expression watandur was used by the various ethnic groups living in Afghanistan only to describe people from their own villages, clans, or valleys. Now, implying a sense of equality, the word is used to describe any Afghan. As Mr. Azoy and others point out, the ``jihad'' has pushed Afghans of different ethnic groups to join forces.
``Culturally,... Afghanistan has a sense of strength and vitality greater than ... before the war,'' Azoy says. ``But the question now is whether politically it will all hang together or fall apart.''
First of four articles. Next: Will Afghans hang together?