Returning Afghans were promised a new life. They have misery and death

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The Independent Online

To Kabul's new rich, the suburb of Karte Sakhi is an unpleasant reminder of what Afghans did to themselves in the civil war, a place to move through swiftly in their four-wheel-drive cars. To the most destitute and desperate of the city's poor, it is home.

To Kabul's new rich, the suburb of Karte Sakhi is an unpleasant reminder of what Afghans did to themselves in the civil war, a place to move through swiftly in their four-wheel-drive cars. To the most destitute and desperate of the city's poor, it is home.

Like a latter-day version of the ruins of Dresden in 1945, the devastation is breathtaking. Once it was a pleasant tree-lined district. Now only the metal stumps of street lamps remain from rocket explosions which blew down buildings and scarred walls with shrapnel.

In the mud and snow of February the suburb is even more of a bleak, hellish place, to hurry through on the way to the city centre. But Karte Sakhi cannot be ignored. It has become a symbol of what has gone wrong in the new Afghanistan.

Inside the skeletons of buildings, under tarpaulins covered with snow, hundreds of families have crawled into the ruins to live a half-life as squatters. They have no electricity, no clean water, no sanitation, and no heating. There are no jobs for the men and little food for the children. For the women life is a grinding struggle to try to keep the family together, stop the roof leaking, and share the meagre handouts of food that keep their children alive but not nourished.

These people are not the victims of a war which ended years ago. They are some of the families who heeded Hamid Karzai's call to return from the refugee camps of Pakistan to a new Afghanistan. Instead of finding that longed-for new beginning, they have ended up in a nightmarish dumping ground, the losers in the dream of a new Afghanistan promised by Western leaders.

For the past fortnight the families of Karte Sakhi, who have endured three years of misery in the ruins, have shivered, coughed and died in Afghanistan's coldest winter for 20 years. Roia, 23, who has four children, came back from Pakistan because her husband, Qolam Sakhi, had heard things had got better in Kabul.

Two years later, they are still in the wrecked house that they found on their arrival. There are no permanent homes for families like them. There is nothing to warm the children except glowing coals and hot ashes which a nearby bakery sometimes lets them take them as charity after the bread is baked. The baby is constantly sick and there is no money for medicine. Power for the single electric light bulb comes from a car battery which they rarely have the money to recharge.

Roia pointed to condensation streaming down a plastic sheet over a window and admitted she feared whether her youngest would survive until spring. She said: "Sometimes the walls or the ceiling collapse. That's the biggest fear. We didn't think it would be like this in Kabul. President Karzai said there would be land and help but there's been nothing for us here." As she recounts her family's troubles matter of factly, her husband starts weeping, shamed by the humiliation of the misery they are reduced to.

There have been no new homes built for them in the massive reconstruction process. Social housing is not planned by anybody, although the city is covered with building sites, the tasteless mansions of the nouveau riche, those who have prospered on the drugs trade, and merchants who have done well from the influx of Westerners. In Kabul's distorted economic boom, fuelled by drugs and aid money, the price of land has rocketed while the city bulges at the seams with returnees putting an unbearable strain on its primitive infrastructure.

Near the city's sports stadium is a camp of improvised tents made by refugees from old sacking and tarpaulins. In here, a week ago, an infant froze to death. Twenty deaths from cold have been registered so far. The baby boy's grandfather, Rahmatullah, an unemployed labourer, said the family had tried to warm the child during the night but he died soon after dawn. He said: "I am near to despair. How can we go on like this? The animals in Kabul are better off than we are. We were happy to come back to Afghan-istan because this is our country, but now we wish we had stayed in Pakistan."

Dr Jawid Samadi runs a clinic for the returnees, funded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. In the camps he visits, 1,500 to 2,000 people are sick with respiratory diseases, including pneumonia and bronchitis, especially children.

"For a doctor it is painful to see the condition these people have to live in," he said. "When you see the pledges the foreign countries made to help Afghanistan, then look at how these people are living, there is a big gap between the two. It makes me very angry."

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