"Why has everyone forgotten about us?" an Afghan village leader said to me last month. He was a refugee who had returned from Pakistan to the village of Dar Khat in northern Afghanistan. That was three years ago.
Today, his people still live in dire poverty. They have little food, no home, no school, no water, and no work. This past winter, 22 members of his family have been cooped up in a hole in the ground covered with wooden boards and mud. "Why are we forgotten?" he said. "Are we animals?"
Afghans are a resilient and courageous people, but they live in perpetual fear of being forgotten. They point to the post-Soviet years and cite global inattention for the ensuing civil war, chaos and religious extremism. Now, Afghans fear they are being forgotten once again.
Since 2002, nearly five million Afghans have returned home from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. This past month, I went to Afghanistan with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, to visit some of the returnees. In the encampment centre in Kabul, where returnees are registered, I met families who had made the tiring journey home from Pakistan the day before. I spoke to them as they descended from the brightly coloured trucks loaded with their women, children, wooden beams, and bundles of bags. They were weary from the road, but I found their mood positive. "We are happy to be home," one smiling man told me. "We have helped the economy of Pakistan for 20 years. Now we can help the economy of our own country. We are happy."
For how long, I wondered. I had sat down a few days before with the leader of Jeloghir, a small Uzbek village, whose people had returned five years earlier from Iran. They too had come home buoyed by hope and the promise of opportunity. But the disenchanted leader, a father of five, told me that Jeloghir's children go uneducated because the nearest school is a two-hour walk each way. His people live on bread, and drink water from a nearby muddy river. He missed the comfort of his life in Iran. "Here, no one looks after us," he said.
In a settlement of nomads, on barren, desert land between the cities of Kunduz and Mazar, I saw hundreds of homeless returnees still living idly in ragged tents and makeshift mud shelters, a full three years after returning to Afghanistan. The village elder told me that his village loses 10-15 children every winter from exposure to the elements. "Beg for bread if you must," he told me ruefully, "but may you never, ever, beg for a home."
I spoke about these people with President Hamid Karzai during a lunch in Kabul. He told me that Afghanistan would welcome any Afghan who wants to return home. It was, typically, an honourable position to take. But historically, the central Afghan government has never been able to provide adequately for its people. Today, Afghanistan is a country still recovering from a 30-year nightmare of war, famine, drought and displacement. By all indications, the Afghan government is overwhelmed with the task of providing even basic services, and does not have the capacity to absorb the millions of Afghans who have come back.
The situation is likely to worsen. Pakistan is closing down its refugee camps and wants the two million Afghans living in Pakistan to be repatriated by 2009. The Iranian government, burdened with illegal Afghan migrant workers, is taking increasingly aggressive measures to send home the nearly one million Afghans living in Iran.
The return of millions of Afghans can be seen as an encouraging indicator of progress in Afghanistan.
But the repatriation process will falter unless the international community makes a sustained commitment to help reintegrate the returning refugees and provide them with a livelihood and basic services.
Failure to do so will have destabilising effects beyond Afghanistan. It will increase illegal movement across the Iranian and Pakistani borders, as destitute Afghans seek economic opportunity they cannot find at home. I could imagine all too easily the villagers I met turning to poppy cultivation to provide for their families. And there is always the spectre of disillusionment with the Afghan government, and, by extension, the promises of the West – with the Taliban waiting in the wings, eager to welcome the disillusioned into their insurgent ranks.
With the global focus on Iraq, I have watched with dismay as my native country continues to recede from the headlines.
A failed Afghan state is a catastrophe for both Afghanistan and the West.
The writer is a goodwill envoy to UNHCR, and the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid SunsReuse content