Afghan villagers return, but life remains on hold

Tajik families lack means to start over

March 16, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ESTALEF, Afghanistan - "Welcome to the Burnt Territory," the sign pointing to the town of Estalef informs visitors in English and Persian. As the road winds into the foothills, the meaning of that ominous greeting becomes clear.

Estalef was once prosperous, a community clinging to lower slopes of the Kuh-e-Hendukos mountains above the lush Shomali Plain about 20 miles north of Kabul. Its single road meandered past stands of pine trees, mulberry orchards and irrigated vineyards. Decades ago, a palace here served as a retreat for the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

Today, the town is a patch of scorched earth. The Taliban, most of them Pashtuns, came up the valley three years ago, attacking the mainly Tajik residents. The Taliban destroyed most of the towns. And they seemed especially determined to ensure that no one would be able to live again in Estalef.

Village residents describe indiscriminate killings. One woman, they say, was shot as she tried to extinguish the fire consuming her house. Others, protesting that they weren't soldiers, were killed as they tended cattle in their fields. The Taliban shelled the king's former palace, a symbol of their country's royalist past. And farmers say they destroyed an ancient irrigation system.

Many of the people who escaped lived in squalid refugee camps. Today, many returning villagers are still living in tents, still dependent on food aid, still without work, still in despair. The scale of destruction has made them refugees in their own village.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says workers will help 15,000 Afghans return to the Shomali Plain in the weeks to come. But without considerable aid after the move, most of the refugees will face the same problems as the people who returned to Estalef.

For years Sayeed Jon, a 45-year-old former cattle rancher, dreamed of returning to his home, a mud-walled compound a three-hour walk from Estalef.

But when he arrived a few months ago, he found his home destroyed, his cattle long gone, his garden turned to dust. "Of course, it was a shock. It's like when a person loses a foot," Jon said. "All my ancestors, all my family have lived here."

The roof over his head is a white tent with a blue plastic tarp. He and six family members live in a camp of about 60 similar tents perched in the ruins of mud-walled homes near a stream flowing under Estafel's road. About 200 people wait here. And they're not sure for what.

There are no jobs, no money. The only source of food is the sacks wheat from international aid groups.

How does Jon's home differ from a refugee camp?

He thought this over. "There is no difference," he said. "Except this is our village."

When Nuradeen returned to Estalef, he conducted a melancholy hunt for his uncle and nephew. There were reports that they were shot by the Taliban, their bodies left on the hillside where they fell.

Nuradeen found their remains, wrapped them in winding sheets and buried them in a Muslim ceremony. Theirs was only one of dozens of funerals, delayed by the villagers' exile.

Nuradeen has swept out his house. When the winter snows melt, he would like to plant a garden. But how can he rebuild or replant, he asked, when he lacks tools and seeds?

He is anxious to return his children to school. He worries about the daylong journey to the nearest clinic if one of his four girls - ages 2 1/2 months to 8 years - becomes ill.

Mohammed Haya, 42, fled south to Kabul with nine members of his family. After walking for hours, the family was picked up by Taliban authorities and taken to the grounds of the former Russian Embassy - where hundreds of people from the Shomali Plain were brought.

Haya was not mistreated during his three years of there. But he was miserable. There was nothing to do. His family survived on food from the aid organization CARE.

When he arrived back in Estalef, only two walls remained of the compound that had housed three families. He felt devastated. He had nothing but the clothes he was wearing when he fled. Today, he has his clothes, a few utensils and his tent.

Villagers are so worried about their children, some of the elders have drafted a letter to an aid group, pleading for a school, a hospital and a doctor. They plan to give it to the next aid official who arrives.

Mohammed Kosam once owned a vineyard in the area, but the Taliban destroyed the irrigation system. The vineyard is a field of gnarled sticks.

With six children and four grandchildren, he has a lot of mouths to feed. So he and his two sons spend their days ripping up the remains of orchards and vineyards for firewood. They take it to market on horseback and sell it for 60 cents a load.

One aid group supplied him with a tent and delivered coal for fuel. The white-bearded Kosam is unsure what will happen next: "There are no jobs here. What can we do?"

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