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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 February 2005, 07:45 GMT
Refugees make do in Kabul's ruins

By Andrew North
BBC correspondent, Kabul

Street in Kabul
Most refugees choose to return to Kabul
Since the fall of the Taleban in December 2001, more than 3.5 million Afghan refugees have returned to their homes.

For the United Nations refugee agency, which has overseen the process, it is the largest return of any refugee population ever.

But in a country still suffering the affects of a quarter century of war, many of these returnees are living in dire conditions.

One reason is that many have not been able to return to their towns and villages because they were destroyed in the fighting.

We shake from the cold, what kind of a life is this?
Afghan refugee
Instead, they have moved to Kabul and other cities, where in many cases they are living in the ruins.

Today, Afghan refugees is very much on the agenda, both in Afghanistan itself where the British foreign secretary Jack Straw will be discussing the issue as part of a visit, and in Brussels, where the UNHCR is discussing how to help them with donor nations.

Miserable conditions

In a corner of Kabul, children are having fun but in conditions of miserable squalor.

The walls their voices echo off are those of a war-shattered ruin in west Kabul.

Through gaping shell holes comes gusts of freezing wind and snow.

Afghan baby holds a rock in a Kabul refugee camp as he sits by a box carrying toys donated by Canadian soldiers
An Afghan baby sits holding a rock in a Kabul refugee camp next to a box of toys donated by Canadian soldiers.

This was once the Soviet Cultural Centre but it is now home to around 700 former refugees.

"I've been here two years," says Salia, who returned from neighbouring Pakistan.

"We don't have wood to keep warm in winter, no water, no money," she says.

"We shake from the cold, what kind of a life is this?"

"There's no job, we have nothing," says Abdul Samad who lives with his wife and three children in a make shift hut he has built against one of the shell scarred walls.

Spilling over

Several thousand other returnees live in similar conditions in ruined buildings around Kabul.

Many thousands more are crowded in with friends and families around the capital and other cities.

An unknown number of former refugees have died in the sub-zero temperatures of the past month - although the UN refugee agency and other organisations have now moved many in the most exposed settlements into temporary shelters.

But with the situation so dire for so many of these former refugees, should the UN be so keen to see more Afghans return?

Tim Irwin is the UNHCR spokesman in Afghanistan.

The problem he says, is that many of the former refugees living in the worst conditions have chosen to come to Kabul and other cities rather than their home towns and villages - where there's much less chance of finding work.

But Afghanistan's Refugee Minister, Mohammed Azam Dadfar, holds out little hope of things changing quickly.

"Things could get worse," he warns.

Back at the ruins of the Soviet Cultural Centre, there is no sign of optimism from Salia.

"We thought our life would get better when we came back," she says angrily.

"But it's got worse."

For the moment, what is a undoubtedly a sign of hope for Afghanistan - the return of so many of its citizens - is proving a serious burden, on a country that is already carrying so many others.

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