Afghans lured back to villages wait in vain for new homes

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The Independent Online

They descended in waves, engulfing us in the Jeeps and vans, knocking on the windows, and demanding the food piled on the trucks. Twitchy American airborne troops used their Colt M4 carbines to try to push the crowd back along the dusty track. When the convoy was forced to stop, the supplies were unloaded on the roadside. The crowd was struggling for the food as we drove away.

They descended in waves, engulfing us in the Jeeps and vans, knocking on the windows, and demanding the food piled on the trucks. Twitchy American airborne troops used their Colt M4 carbines to try to push the crowd back along the dusty track. When the convoy was forced to stop, the supplies were unloaded on the roadside. The crowd was struggling for the food as we drove away.

Thus ended the US military's distribution of provisions to the refugee camps pitting the Shomali Plain. A few miles from the Bagram headquarters, the focal point of an American and British campaign that costs $1bn (£690m) a month, thousands of Afghans are living in appalling poverty, misled and abandoned, they say, by aid agencies, Western donors and their government.

The refugees, or internally displaced persons as the agencies call them, had returned to their villages from their shelters in Kabul and the Panjshir Valley, and Pakistan, where at least they were given some aid. They were promised that their homes, destroyed by the Taliban, were being rebuilt.

Instead, while the Bagram air base hums with continuous construction, the Afghan destitute, many of them elderly and infants, have been living in tents supplied by the UNHCR for the past three months, next to their shattered homes that show no sign of rebuilding.

Villagers say the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) gave them the tents, two days' food, some coal for the winter, and went away. The refugees live seven or eight to a tent, with no regular income. About a hundred families return every week to join them.

The land here is a dull-brown dust-bowl, mile after mile of flat aridity littered with shells of burnt farmhouses, twisted skeletons of tanks and armoured cars and hundreds of lurking mines. The Shomali, north of Kabul, was destroyed on the orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden, in a scorched-earth policy as Northern Alliance forces under Ahmed Shah Masood advanced on the capital.

Before this man-made disaster, the plain was the garden of Afghanistan, a verdant land of roses, vineyards and orange groves, orchards of apples and walnuts in abundance, crossed by streams and cushioned from the cold winds of the Hindu Kush by a range of hills. Businessmen would come from Kabul and Kandahar, Iran and India, to buy crops for export to Europe and America.

Today, the American food runs are a help, but, as the US Army's Civil Affairs Battalion admits, they are temporary measures that will end when the main bulk of US forces moves out of Bagram. Yet only a few of the camps are given food. So those left out scramble for scarce supplies, which led to the last leg of our trip having to be abandoned. The refugees say they are grateful for the food, although they are bewildered by the esoteric mix the soldiers bring.

At the village of Rabat Chohakher, seven miles from Bagram, 300 people are encamped next to their burnt village. Abdul Rahim, the 80-year-old headman, looked at the packets of Quickstart chilli mix, Milan cheddar cheese sauce, and Hawaiian Gold pineapple chunks, Tops tabasco sauce, and said: "These are not the kinds of things we are used to eating.

"But we are very thankful. We really have very little to eat otherwise, and it is especially hard on the children. We don't know what we will do when this stops. Some of the young men work as labourers, but there isn't much work around. The Americans and British have all these men making buildings in Bagram, so why don't they come and rebuild our homes?"

Mr Rahim said he had brought his and other families back from the Panjshir Valley after being told the village was being rebuilt and they would get aid. His 13-year-old grandson, Ajmal, and a few of the younger men have begun to try to replenish the withered vineyards and the dried-up apricot and apple orchards, despite the distinct possibility that some of the land is still mined.

"But we have received nothing from the UN, no food, no money," Mr Rahim said. "My son died fighting the Russians, then the Taliban destroyed the irrigation system and set fire to our homes. We are trying to make things grow again. But this will take years."

At the next camp, Akekhil Qurabagh, the tale was much the same. The people had been living in the 24-building Russian embassy complex in Kabul, refugees from Taliban destruction. The Russians wanted their embassy back, and the interim government of Hamid Karzai and the aid agencies have begun to clear it.

Hukum Jan, 50, said: "We were told by the agencies, the UN and IOM, that if we leave the embassy we will get help. But no help has come. They are spending so much money on the war, why don't they spend some of it on the poor people?"

Akbar Nasirullah, once Mr Jan's neighbour, added: "We used to live like kings in the Shomali. Now we are beggars, and, like beggars, we are being ignored."

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