Hope & despair; Amid the ongoing violence, Afghan families are building new lives, brick by brick

The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Page: B1 / FRONT

Section: Saturday Observer

Byline: David Pugliese

Dateline: KHOWJA ALWAN, Afghanistan

Source: The Ottawa Citizen


KHOWJA ALWAN, Afghanistan – Wahid Ullah is about halfway through what will eventually become his first real home in five years. Over a week-long period, he dug, by himself, the 20-metre deep well in front of his new house. Now he and his five-year-old son are carefully placing bricks as they construct the walls of what will eventually be a two-room structure. Mud, which under the relentless Afghan sun will dry as hard as concrete, is used to bond the evenly aligned bricks.


“I hope to be finished in a month,” the 32-year-old Mr. Ullah says through an interpreter. He had fled with his family of five to Pakistan in 2001 to escape the fighting between coalition forces and the Taliban. He decided to return home last year after being told he could obtain a parcel of land and a house as part of a program to help refugees rebuild their lives after years of war.


Mr. Ullah is constructing his home at a site prepared by the French aid group ACTED, the Agency for Technical Co-operation and Development. The Paris-based non-governmental organization paid a local company to dig 40 wells and build four kilometres of roads in the new community, said Fardeen Zia, one of the agency’s engineers. Work is also under way on a school and a clinic. Eventually, 14,000 people are expected to settle in this newly-constructed town in northern Afghanistan, said Mr. Zia.


In addition, ACTED is distributing “self-build” packages that allow Afghans like Mr. Ullah to construct their own homes.


The kits have the basic materials, including windows, beams and doors, needed for a two-room house and latrine.


The Afghan families provide the labour, making the bricks that form the walls, as well as doing all the construction themselves, although ACTED engineers provide technical advice. It takes anywhere from two months to a year for each home to be built, depending on how fast the prospective house owner works or how many friends and family he has to help him.


Besides providing much-needed shelter, the ACTED development could become the first line of defence against a looming crisis that has the potential to further disrupt Afghanistan’s fragile situation.


Over the next two years, Pakistan and Iran plan to send millions of Afghan refugees back home, a situation the United Nations warns will overwhelm the Karzai government. The Pakistanis blame the refugees for an increase in terrorism, while Iranians claim Afghans in their country illegally are involved in the drug trade or have become too much of an economic burden.


The returnees are expected to flood into Afghanistan’s already overcrowded cities such as Kabul, where they will join refugees who fled fighting in rural Afghanistan between Canadian and coalition troops and the Taliban over the last year.


There are concerns among aid agencies and analysts, such as the Kabul-based think-tank the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, that those returning from Pakistan and Iran could provide a fertile recruiting ground for the Taliban or turn to crime if they cannot find shelter or work.


An analysis produced last month for the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation sounded a similar warning. “A surge in repatriated refugees will probably increase unemployment in Afghanistan, which will result in weakening the central government by strengthening drug lords and anti-government elements who may be able to tap into this new pool of potential recruits,” wrote Waliullah Rahmani.


Iran has warned it will send about 900,000 Afghan refugees packing over the next year. Since April 21, it has expelled about 100,000 people, Salvatore Lombardo, the United Nations representative on refugees in Afghanistan, said Tuesday.


Pakistan, home to an estimated 2.6 million Afghan refugees, has also warned it will force some of those people back to their country. It will shut down four refugee camps, with a total of 230,000 Afghans, in the next two years. The first of the camps will be shut down in the next few months.


Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2002, more than four million Afghans have returned home from Pakistan and Iran, but the country, already dealing with high unemployment and a lack of housing and shelter, has had difficulty absorbing that many people. In Sajadia village, just outside the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the number of families jumped from 200 to 1,200 over a one-year period, putting considerable strain on limited water resources in the community, according to ACTED.


Khowja Alwan is one of five pilot projects across the country designed to provide land to Afghans displaced by years of war and potentially deal with the increasing refugee problem. Over a five-month period, the community went from a barren tract of land to having the first homes built, according to ACTED official Marianna Franco.


The drilling of the 40 community wells in the village provided water for the Afghans to make bricks for their houses. The four kilometres of road built by ACTED link the village to a highway, making it easier for people to try to find work in the nearby city of Pul-i-Khumri, some 15 kilometres away.


By doing the work themselves, the Afghans learn enough to maintain the shelters and enlarge them if needed. “It also allows them to take ownership of the work, so this isn’t seen as some kind of handout,” Ms. Franco explained.


Construction is continuing in the community and the payoff seems high, particularly considering that the entire project, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, costs around $2 million.


In a country where many Afghans have seen little tangible evidence of international help, the project is somewhat of a rarity. Part of its success can be traced to ACTED’s long-term presence in Afghanistan, particularly in the north, where Khowja Alwan is located. The organization has been working in the country for more than 12 years and it tends to rely heavily on local staff to move projects along.


In Dasht-e-Shor, 17 kilometres north of Mazar-e-Sharif, ACTED is helping an additional 480 families with another self-build shelter program. In Faryab, 31 families began building their houses last year. For those without shelter, ACTED distributes emergency kits in the winter which include quilts, stoves and firewood.


Khowja Alwan is considered the most advanced of the pilot projects and ACTED is hoping to get money for donors to continue with another phase of the program, this time to provide skills so Afghans can become employable or operate their own small businesses.


The creation of jobs is seen as key. Although they are now being supplied with homes, unemployment is still a major concern among those living in Khowja Alwan.


“We have our homeland back, but there is no work,” said Abdul Wahid as his seven children crowd around him outside his new home.


The 38-year-old, who lost a leg after stepping on a landmine, lived in Pakistan for more than five years with his family. He left after being assured by the UN there would be land and a home waiting for him in Afghanistan.


Others have complained that promises of help from the Karzai government have not materialized and some in the community question why a grain silo in nearby Pul-i-Khumri, which could provide hundreds of jobs, still remains closed after five years.


Back at his house now under construction, Wahid Ullah says he’s concerned that those being forced from Pakistan and Iran will further contribute to the worsening situation in Afghanistan. “These people will face two big problems,” he explained. “There are no homes and there are no jobs. It will not be a good situation.”


Mr. Ullah, trained as an industrial painter plans to look for work once he finishes constructing his house. He knows that his job prospects in a country where unemployment runs at about 50 per cent are not good.


But some still have hope for Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah, who only goes by one name, lived in Pakistan for eight years before returning home. The promise of a home and land was key in making his decision to return, said the 37-year-old whose family includes nine people.


“This is my homeland,” he said through an interpreter as he and his son Ferozkhan, 12, take a break from building their house at Khowja Alwan. “We’re hoping things will improve. That’s all we can do.”


David Pugliese, the Citizen’s award-winning senior writer for defence, recently returned from Afghanistan.

 For more Canadian Forces and Defence Department news go to David Pugliese’s Defence Watch at:





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