Home-bound refugees flood barren land

Afghans return to north, hoping to reclaim losses after Taliban's retreat

War On Terrorism

November 18, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DASHTI-QALA, Afghanistan - The road home was filled yesterday, crowded with trucks and tractors piled high with possessions and relatives, plowing through the swirling dust, taking refugees back to villages just freed from Taliban rule.

Shouts and animals and young boys bent under their loads were the order of the day.

Several million refugees live inside Afghanistan, and an equal number have fled the country. With the sudden collapse of Taliban power in the north of the country since the beginning of last week, the roads are alive again with traffic.

Northern Afghanistan is stirring itself into a new life, and it's a dusty one. But thousands are nonetheless heading home to reclaim the land that is theirs.

A farmer named Abdurakhmon had rented a train of three camels, on which were piled furniture, clothes, pots and pans, kerosene lamps, and his 85-year-old mother, Gulkhan. His wife and six children made their way on foot, except for the youngest boy, Kandogha, who was born a year ago in the refugee camp here and was carried.

Gulkhan hasn't been able to walk since the day 16 months ago when the Taliban swept through their village, Kizil Kucha, burning homes, beating some people and killing others. As she fled she stepped in a hole and broke her ankle, and without medical attention it never healed properly.

Abdurakhmon, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was in a jaunty mood. He had tied the glass chimney of his kerosene lamp to the side of his turban, the better to keep it from breaking. The lamp itself was hanging down the side of one of the sometimes wayward camels, which cost $8 a day.

"I'm glad my land has been freed," he said. "Give me a chance, and I'll work."

Abdurakhmon figured he and his family would be home by today.

From a vast hot plain here, the road west rises into low brown hills. Tan villages made of straw and mud rise from the tan earth. Trees grow along the riverbeds, but elsewhere all is bare. The Taliban were given credit for stamping out the drug trade, but in Abdurakhmon's home village, every piece of arable land seemed to have been planted with poppies.

Almost no one expected the Taliban to disappear so abruptly. Refugees along the way were confident that they were gone for good. But as if to emphasize the immediacy of the change in Afghanistan, American B-52s from time to time flew in great circles high overhead, apparently heading for the last-stand battleground in Kunduz province.

Where the westbound road meets the Kokcha River, there stood a chance for profit. There is no bridge across the river; it often runs low enough to present no obstacle. But yesterday, after a recent rain in the mountains, the Kokcha was flowing axle-deep and then some.

Tojidin Kulabi was on the eastern shore, pondering what to do with about five dozen people, including his family, who were perched high atop a farm trailer that was stranded about 10 yards into the river.

A great commotion was all around. Young men on horseback rode up and down the bank, into the river and back out again. Older men rode their donkeys across. Shepherds pushed their sheep into the current, but the sheep proved to be poor swimmers. Some were swept away until they came to rest against a small truck stranded farther out. Others beat a hasty retreat shoreward.

A camel driver led his train, unperturbed, into the river, heads held high.

Tractor drivers were standing by to pull vehicles through to the other side, at any price the market would bear. One was trying to get the stranded farm trailer moving again, but with little success, despite the green ribbons tied to the tractor to ward off the evil eye. The occupants sat atop their heaped belongings, much of it packed in old food-aid bags, not so much forlornly as impassively.

Kulabi had been to his village, Khuja Ghor, on Friday to check things out. He found that the Taliban had tried to burn out the village, but not much in an Afghan house can burn. The roofs were off; the windows missing. He decided there was no reason not to bring everyone home yesterday.

"We have to rebuild everything, but we'll need to find some money first, so that's for the future," he said. "What we'll do right away, I don't know."

A decade ago, Kulabi worked in Kabul as a department director in the Finance Ministry, but the government he served fell long ago, and he went back home because he thought that was where he belonged. Yesterday he was making a second return, a year and a half after the Taliban forced him to flee to a refugee camp.

The international humanitarian aid agencies that worked at the camp had promised the residents that food and other assistance will follow them if they return home, and for Kulabi there was no point in waiting.

Wearing a green cap with a gray turban wrapped around it and a pinstriped vest over the traditional men's gown, the 50-year-old former civil servant was in a harshly optimistic mood.

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