AS the Afghan civil war enters its final act, families here are beginning the arduous task of putting this half-destroyed hilltop village back together. Before the Soviet invasion 10 years ago, Robat was a relatively prosperous village of 8,000, encompassing broad plains and rocky, snowcapped hills east of Ghazni city. There were irrigated orchards of peach, mulberry, and apple trees, and hundreds of acres of communally owned wheat land in the valley below.
``There were fewer than 20 guns in the whole village [before the war],'' according to Mullah Abdul Rahman, a leading citizen. ``Now there are only 20 families, but every man is armed.'' Abdul Rahman displayed one of the original weapons, an antique single-shot pistol dating from the 1890s. In 1979, he and four other men left Robat to fight Soviet and Afghan communist troops, armed only with that pistol and a few bullets. Since it was Abdul Rahman's weapon, he led the group.
Abdul Rahman and his brothers have kept up the struggle ever since, electing not to emigrate to Pakistan or Iran as over 5 million Afghans have done. Most of the villagers of Robat, in fact, could not afford to move their households to Pakistan, a punishing and expensive three-day truck ride to the east. Instead they chose internal exile in the neighboring provinces of Paktia and Logar.
From there they kept an eye on their land and homes, returning to tend the orchards when it was safe. And like Abdul Rahman, many of the men joined the mujahideen, fighting under one of three local commanders from bases deep in the hills behind the village.
Robat was deserted for eight months last year, during a period of particularly savage bombing that flattened half the village houses. Since the winter, families have begun to return at the rate of two or three a week. Those with means are beginning to rebuild: One or two fresh mud fa,cades rise from the rubble, adorned with brightly painted blue window frames and drain pipes cut from old Chinese 82-millimeter rocket canisters.
In Robat, Afghanaid, a Peshawar-based British agency, is encouraging refugees to return by supporting projects to stimulate food production at the village level.
Peter Reiss, Afghanaid's field director in Peshawar, says: ``Our thinking is that the Afghan refugees can't go home until their areas can provide food for them.''
In Robat, Afghanaid is using part of a $100,000 grant from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide 20 yoke of oxen, plows, and enough wheat seed to get the spring planting season under way. It will be Robat's first wheat crop in 10 years.
The wheat was purchased locally, but oxen are virtually unobtainable in Afghanistan, where millions of animals have perished in the course of the war. Afghanaid's oxen were bought at auction in Pakistan, then walked two weeks over the mountains in Robat. Six died of exhaustion along the way.
Many of the villagers are having an equally difficult time returning to Robat. Afghanaid project officer Sarah Forster says that if additional funding can be found she hopes to provide a truck to ferry all the families home from neighboring areas. The villagers estimate that one truck could repopulate Robat in a month.
As in many areas of Afghanistan, mines are a potential obstacle both to agriculture and refugee return. In the Robat area, according to local mujahideen leaders, most mines are of the antitank variety, planted along roads and riverbeds by the mujahideen themselves to discourage enemy traffic. Although there are no mine maps for Robat, the mujahideen who planted them are still here and can at least identify areas that were never mined.
Muhammad Ullah, a local mujahideen commander, has a disconcerting habit when showing visitors around the area of stopping occasionally to point out the spot where one of his own US- or Chinese-manufactured antitank mines lies buried. Similar in size and shape to a large tin of Danish butter cookies, some of these have been in the ground for eight years and are still active.
The Robat mujahideen have promised to begin clearing mines over the next few months. Meanwhile, the spring wheat was planted far from the danger zones.
The mine situation in Robat illustrates some of the responsibilities faced by foreign agencies who implement projects inside Afghanistan. ``Our fieldworkers are trained to recognize different types of mines, and to warn villagers of their dangers,'' Ms. Forster says. ``But they have neither the expertise nor the authority to de-mine areas themselves. If we determined that a given area was unsafe for agriculture, we would bring in specialists to advise the locals about removing them before proceeding with the project.''
The UN is currently sponsoring mine clearing and mine awareness courses for Afghan volunteers in Peshawar and Quetta, the capital of Pakistani Baluchistan. So far, over 500 Afghans have graduated from the two-week course.
But the expatriate trainers are forbidden, for political reasons, to work inside Afghanistan. And according to UN official Michael Keating, the UN is ``not yet in a position'' to respond to private agency requests for Afghan course graduates to come in and clear mines from dangerous areas.
In effect, it appears that mine clearing expertise may be thin on the ground in Afghanistan for some time to come.
Over the summer, Afghanaid plans to use the rest of its UNHCR grant to repair irrigation systems around Robat and the neighboring villages. For the much larger fall planting season it will introduce more oxen and what Forster describes as ``massive'' quantities of wheat seed and fertilizer, which can only be used on irrigated land. Forster also hopes to replace some of the many fruit trees crushed by tanks or chopped down for firewood by the impoverished locals.
Even in a relief project of this limited scale, one potential danger may be local overdependence on the foreign agency providing the aid. Afghanaid held several public meetings in Robat, mainly to convince skeptical representatives of seven tribal and guerrilla factions that the aid was not designed to favor any particular group. At one meeting an Afghan fieldworker mentioned that Afghanaid will provide fodder for the oxen until the villagers can grow their own.
One of the local mujahideen commanders replied, only half jokingly: ``Why should we grow fodder? When the supply runs out we can ask Afghanaid to give us more.'' But such hazards notwithstanding, the Robat project has gotten off to a promising start.