TRYING TO SURVIVE IN KABUL

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: KABUL, Afghanistan

Source: The Ottawa Citizen

 

KABUL, Afghanistan – It’s common these days to hear less than complimentary things in this country about Hamid Karzai’s government.

 

There’s talk about corruption and anger over the failure of the president’s administration to put Afghanistan back on its feet despite having received billions of dollars of aid money from the international community. Unemployment is running at about 50 per cent. Some former government officials, such as one-time foreign minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, warn that the Karzai regime is growing increasingly isolated from Afghans.

 

Living in the bombed-out concrete ruins of what was once a government building, Nafesea, who like some Afghans only uses one name, speaks firsthand about that isolation and the growing anger and frustration among Afghans.

 

“No one cares about poor people here,” she says through an interpreter. “The government promised us everything and we have nothing. Karzai has done nothing.”

 

Two years ago, her family was told they’d have jobs and land if they left a refugee camp in Pakistan and returned to Afghanistan.

 

Today, they are squatters among the abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Kabul.

 

When a foreigner first arrives to speak to her, Nafesea covers part of her face with her brown head scarf. But as she talks about her family’s situation and Afghanistan’s government, her voice rises in anger and she becomes animated enough to drop the scarf, revealing her weathered face. Nafesea is 36, but she looks at least 10 years older.

 

Some of her seven children play among the ruins of the destroyed buildings.

 

Her 13-year-old mentally handicapped son stands off to the side, seemingly content in his own world.

 

About 50 people live these ruins while hundreds of other squatters have taken over an abandoned apartment building a couple of kilometres away. Others are camped out in tents on small bits of land scattered throughout the city.

 

Just down the road from Nafesea’s makeshift shelter is the former Canadian military base, Camp Julien, a $140-million installation that the federal government turned over to Afghanistan when it relocated troops from Kabul to Kandahar.

 

The sprawling camp, at its peak once home to 4,000 Canadian and NATO soldiers, now houses an Afghan government ministry.

 

In the other direction several kilometres away, construction is underway on a massive building that will become a new religious school. Government office buildings are also being revamped and glitzy wedding halls, a relatively new phenomenon among Afghans wealthy enough to afford extravagant nuptials, have been erected.

 

Left out in the cold, literally, at times, are the tens of thousands of homeless people barely eking out an existence in Kabul. Most have returned from Iran or Pakistan where they had originally fled to escape Afghanistan’s seemingly constant wars.

 

The return of the refugees from those countries has been cited as a success story and a sign that Afghanistan is slowly putting itself back on its feet.

 

Due to decades of war, more than eight million Afghans left for the safety of Iran and Pakistan. Between 2002 and 2005, almost three million returned from Pakistan and another 1.5 million from Iran. But the number of returnees dropped substantially in 2006 as word spread about the lack of jobs and housing in Afghanistan.

 

There are still several million Afghans in Pakistan and Iran and many have told the United Nations they don’t want to return because they remain unconvinced their lives will improve.

 

“Returnees face a depressed job market, insecurity and the general underdeveloped situation of Afghanistan, which is difficult to return to after many years spent in Iran and Pakistan, where they experienced higher standards of living,” warns a report produced in January by the French aid agency ACTED.

 

Women, in particular, tend to gain benefits from living in the more developed economies of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries since they can find work more easily, the report added.

 

Iran and Pakistan are now pressuring many of the refugees to return home, convinced their presence is at least partially linked to terrorist attacks that have increased over the last year as well as the growing drug trade. They plan to send millions of Afghans packing, a move that government and international officials worry will overwhelm the Afghanistan’s limited resources.

 

The result is a growing political crisis for the Karzai government. In mid-May, Refugee Minister Mohammad Akbar Akbar lost his job over his failure to properly deal with the refugee problem. Afghanistan’s parliament also dismissed the country’s foreign minister, Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, for his poor handling of the issue. But Mr. Spanta refused to leave his job and after a series of legal moves, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the firing was unconstitutional.

 

Some Afghan officials believe there are other issues behind the forced return of the refugees. They claim that Pakistan is trying to destabilize Afghanistan by flooding it with refugees who have no jobs or homes to return to.

 

Mr. Spanta argues that Iran’s motives are also suspect. It is unhappy over Afghanistan’s close relationship with the U.S. and NATO, as well as angry over the construction of dams that could affect Iran’s water supply, he says.

 

But the forced resignations of political officials and ongoing squabbling between Afghanistan and its neighbours mean little to Nafesea and her family. Her husband can’t find a full-time job. Her children often go hungry. Nafesea says if she knew what awaited the family in Afghanistan, they would have never left the refugee camp.

 

Winters are particularly hard, she explains. The temperatures here can dip to -20 C and the few blankets the family has do little to ward off the cold. The wind roars through the gaps in the crumbling and collapsed walls. On milder days, melting snow causes water to pour down the concrete walls, soaking bedding and clothes.

 

Twenty metres away from Nafesea’s shelter sit Wahid Ualla, 35, and his daughter. His seven other children are playing nearby, chasing each other over the cement slabs. Some of his family lives in a tent he has erected. Others occupy a room in one of the abandoned buildings.

 

Every day Mr. Ualla walks several kilometres to a site where unskilled day workers are hired. If he is picked, he can make anywhere from $2 to $4 a day. More often than not, there are more workers than there are jobs.

 

Mr. Ualla and his family have been living in the ruins for a year and a half and he seems resigned that not much will change. “We will stay,” he explains, “because we don’t have anywhere else to go.”

 

The family left for Pakistan eight years ago, fleeing fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, a coalition of mujahadeen groups.

 

Mr. Ualla returned two years ago because it seemed like the situation in Afghanistan had improved. “We came back because all the people say there is peace and Karzai says he will give us land,” Mr. Ualla explained. “But there was no job, no land.”

 

Just the bombed-out ruins.

 

Illustration:

• Map: Afghanistan

• Photo: David Pugliese, The Ottawa Citizen / Nafesea sits with one of her children in the bombed-out ruins she lives in with her family on the outskirts of Kabul. Her husband can’t find full-time work, and her children often go hungry.

 

 

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

 

http://communities.canada.com/ottawacitizen/blogs/defencewatch/

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