Ready to Rebuild

Mira Gul and his family are among 1.3 million Afghan refugees flooding the country at twice the expected rate

When Mira Gul pulled up to this sprawling United Nations repatriation camp at 6:30 a.m., a thought dawned on him.

"This may be the last time I have to stand in line for food or for anything." He smiles. Dust devils rip through the camp. "It feels good."

When the Taliban fell last year, few anticipated that refugees like Mira Gul and his family would return in such large numbers, an estimated 1.3 million so far. But the continuing refugee influx into Afghanistan presents aid workers here with both hope and trepidation.

Hope, because the influx is at its heart a vote of confidence in the new government, with Afghans willing to bet their lives on future peace and prosperity. Trepidation, because putting all these refugees into homes and back on their feet will require a massive sustained investment by donor countries and aid groups. It will also require something that Afghanistan hasn't seen in more than 30 years: a stable government.

The relatively quiet passage of the loya jirga, or grand council, which selected a new transitional government for Afghanistan in June, gave Afghans like Mira Gul even more reason to believe that, finally, there would be a chance to rebuild and resettle.

But the numbers of arrivals is beginning to outpace the United Nations' ability to handle them. Originally, planners for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) based their budget on 1.2 million Afghans returning in the first year. Now that 1.3 million refugees have arrived in the first six months alone, the UNHCR has revised its projections upward to 2 million refugees. Even so, there will be no increase in the UNHCR budget this year to meet that growing demand. And not all the countries who promised aid funds have followed through.

"The rate of return is far beyond our expectations, so we may have to make some adjustments in the services we give," says Maki Shinohara, spokeswoman for UNHCR in Kabul.

"It's great that people are coming back; that's a very happy story. But at the same time, if the rate of return is so extremely high, then we start looking out for major instability, especially in areas where there is no infrastructure for development, no job creation."

For Mira Gul, returning to a destroyed Afghanistan is almost as difficult as it was to leave. Fifteen years ago, he fled to Pakistan after being conscripted into the Soviet-backed Afghan Army. Gul was not soldier material, he says, and ended up spending some five months in jail for resisting duty.

Finally, after escaping from his barracks, he migrated to Peshawar, Pakistan, with his mother and father, and began to look for work in the leather business – a trade he picked up on his own as a young man, selling bags, vests, and jackets.

After the fall of the communist-backed government of President Najib in 1992, Mira Gul visited Afghanistan briefly to check on his house. It was still standing. But not for long. In 1993, civil war broke out between rival factions of Afghan militias who had overthrown the communists. Gul's house, on the front line, was destroyed during the first day of fighting.

"The fighters used our home as a barracks, and after a while, different kinds of rockets landed there," says Mira Gul. "Then soldiers began to take down the doors and window frames and burn them as firewood. Weather did the rest."

Today, as he works his way through the UN's repatriation center here – receiving cash, blankets, plastic sheets, and vaccinations for his children, as well as training on how to identify and avoid land mines – Mira Gul thinks about what it will take to rebuild his home. He has brought wooden poles to support his mud and straw roof. He has brought new wooden doors and window frames. But the one thing he needs is bricks, and it will be at least three months before he can afford enough bricks to build just one room for his wife and three kids.

Once he has received all the supplies that the UNHCR can give, he loads up the rented truck that carried him and his family on the five-hour drive from Peshawar. As soon as his brother and cousins have received their repatriation supplies, a caravan of refugee trucks begins for Bagrami, a town southeast of Kabul where Mira Gul's home once stood.

The trucks, piled high with possessions, lumber past Soviet-era factories and military installations reduced to rubble by a decade Afghan civil war and infighting. The trucks also pass by a military base where American Special Forces have just completed training the 2nd Battalion of the new Afghan Army, something that fills Mira Gul with hope.

"A country without an army is like a cooking pot without a lid – everything can fall into the pot and spoil the food," says Mira Gul. "The only reason for a civil war is the lack of an army. When there is an army, there will be no more fighting among warlords."

On arrival, Mira Gul and his wife Habiba quietly stare at the house. The fortress-like mud walls are intact, but inside the compound itself the house is completely destroyed. Only one of the four rooms remains. The rest are so eroded that Mira Gul will have to tear down the walls and start from scratch.

"It's like the difference between the sky and the earth," he says, walking through the compound. "I remember we had a beautiful house, with four rooms decorated with embroidery and carpets, and in the garden we had very good grapes. And now all the flowers have been replaced by thorns."

Gul looks around the dusty compound and grows quiet. "I am very happy to be back in my home village," he says, "and I'm very unhappy to see my house destroyed. But my happiness is bigger than my unhappiness."

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