Amid Afghanistan's decay, hope rekindles
Villagers struggle to repair shattered aqueducts and lives.
SHOMALI VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN
The ruins of Abdul Jabar's home still bear testimony to the scene of a frantic flight.
In what was their kitchen, clumps of children's clothing lie matted and scattered in the dirt. Earthen jars that held the family's wheat and rice lie cracked, looted by Taliban soldiers who forced Abdul Jabar's family and all the residents of this area to flee with only the clothes on their backs.
That was about three years ago, when the Taliban "cleansed" the Shomali Valley - a once-verdant breadbasket north of Kabul - of about 200,000 Tajik villagers suspected of being sympathetic to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
Abdul Jabar took the hour-long trip to his Shomali village of Kale Ebordela, a ghost town of half-wrecked mudbrick homes, to survey the damage earlier this week. He found some of his old neighbors trying to pick up the pieces, starting with one of the most pivotal challenges of all: restoring the area's ancient underground water system that allowed people to irrigate their crops.
But the qares, as the aqueducts are called, were intentionally bombed, poisoned, and plowed over by Taliban soldiers who wanted to make it impossible for the villagers to return home - a policy that has had a lingering success.
Going home for good still seems a distant dream to Abdul Jabar, a now-jobless man who shares a freezing cold room at the Russian compound in Kabul with his wife and six children. Abdul Jabar and his family have been living inside the old Russian Embassy compound on Kabul's outskirts, where they and about 25,000 internally displaced people live in some of the most horrific squalor the city has to offer.
"I feel very sad when I see what they did to my house," Abdul Jabar says, wincing at the crumbling walls, burned-out thatch ceilings, and the destroyed trellis that once provided shade to his family courtyard. "We need food and water and clothes, and we need help from the outside world. Otherwise, we will not come back."
Abdul Jabar's story is a reminder of everything in a broken Afghanistan that needs fixing. While a full generation of war has sent 4 million fleeing its borders - making Afghans the world's largest refugee group - close to a million people inside the country have been displaced by recent fighting and drought. Many of them, living in compounds like the one in Kabul and in frigid tent camps around the country, want to return to their homes and rebuild. But landmines, sabotaged irrigation systems, and the onset of frigid winter weather stand in the way.
And, not insignificantly, many here still feel a gnawing uncertainty about whether it is safe to go home at all.
Over the weekend, the Afghan interim government came to an agreement with international negotiators over the mandate of the peacekeeping force that will fan out around Kabul with some 3,000 troops in January. Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim says the accord allows for up to 300 foreign troops to be based in the capital, while the remainder will be stationed near Kabul airport.
But the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will not be patrolling the rest of the country, raising questions among average Afghans and foreign observers alike about whether it is realistic to expect the rest of the country to keep the peace and get on with the process of rehabilitation.
"Until we stabilize all of Afghanistan, we can't facilitate the return of refugees," says Maki Shinohara, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees "We need something more than having these troops coming just to Kabul."
This week, UNHCR is beginning to lead the first group of displaced people - about 1,000 - back to their homes near Bagram Air Base. There, they receive return packages with the basics, including blankets, a stove, some plastic sheeting, and building materials to patch up the holes. But for many others, the struggle to go home and heal will be much longer.
The area Abdul Jabar comes from has been cleared of mines left by Soviet soldiers and the ongoing civil war. But the water system was ruined by Taliban soldiers, who bulldozed it to discourage anyone from returning. Now, the walled villages that line the road north of Kabul look like eerily deserted sandcastles, devoid of vegetation and life.
That is, except for a few men who, to Abdul Jabar's surprise, were bailing out buckets of debris here yesterday as part of a project, led by the aid group CARE, to get the qares system working again. The program targets 300 villages that need help most and are in districts that have been demined. The workers here are trying to clear out the destroyed water tunnels and seal them with material that prevents precious water from seeping into the ground.
"I really hope water will flow here again," says Abdul Jabar, staring down at a well being rediscovered. The fallow land, which once supplied apples, tomatoes, and onions, is so dry that it leaves a white powder on the hands of the workmen. Nearby are the vineyards Abdul Jabar tended - when he wasn't off fighting with the anti-Taliban resistance forces.
Indeed, he was away at battle in the Panshir Valley when the Taliban captured this area and forced out all its residents at gunpoint. He lost track of his wife and children for about 20 days, he says with a twinge of shame, a period he remembers as one of the most unhappy in his life.
The refugees, after fleeing to Jalalabad, were brought back to the empty Russian compound in Kabul, where Abdul Jabar was later reunited with his wife and family.
"I couldn't even go back to get their clothing," says Zaiba Gul, his wife, as she and her daughter huddle for warmth beneath a comforter in the temporary home in Kabul. Their few belongings hang in plastic bags on a few nails driven into the cement walls. "They ruined everything we had."
The new interim Afghan government says it plans to convene a war-crimes tribunal to bring justice to the victims of killing and ethnic cleansing reported to have taken place under the Taliban. But the cycle of violence in this country goes back much further than that, and the Taliban were not its only perpetrators.
"The war-crimes tribunal, once formed, would only go back as far as the Taliban," says Foreign Minster Abdullah Abdullah. "Even that would take years and years."
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