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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 June, 2004, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
Why millions of Afghans have gone home
Charles Haviland
By Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent in Kabul

Malena, a five year old refugee in a Kabul refugee camp
Afghan refugees are looking forward to a brighter future

With 646,000 refugees having returned home last year, Afghanistan is top of the league for returnees, according to a new UN report.

For a country still struggling to establish security after nearly a quarter-century of war, this offers a ray of hope.

Those flocking back are not just officially registered refugees.

Alongside them are people who have lived all or most of their lives outside the country and just find the new Afghanistan a more congenial society than it was.

Mohammed Nader Farhad, a spokesman here for the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, says that, when internally displaced people and voluntary returnees are counted, no less than 3.6 million Afghans have returned home since early 2002.

Building again

Take a walk under the pine trees, past some of the pockmarked buildings in dusty downtown Kabul, and you will see the impact of those who have decided to rebuild their lives in their homeland.

Afghan labourers in Kabul
After years of destruction, Kabul's buildings are rising again
Alongside the myriad carpet shops and kebab joints, there are the signs of an economic boom - new restaurants, construction companies and hotels, even boutiques.

Many are the initiatives of Afghans returned from abroad to employ their talents.

Omar Zamani left at the age of two in the early 1980s.

Raised in Las Vegas, America's gambling capital, he returned for the first time a few months ago and works in a new bar-restaurant called Elbow Room.

"I am a lot more American than Afghan - I don't know the culture too well," he admits.

"But I'm adapting. I bring these awesome drinks here from Vegas and people are loving them."

Brighter future

Hamed Sangary presents a contrast. The 24-year-old, his parents and his eight brothers and sisters have been refugees twice over.

They fled to Pakistan to escape the Soviet-supported Afghan regime of the 1980s.

They returned under the Mujahideen in the 1990s, only to flee from the Taleban in 1996.

"Life in Peshawar was a little good but not very good," says Hamed, who worked with stonemasons and then studied there.

"Coming back was very good. We were given money.

"Things had changed a lot - there were girls at school and ladies working with NGOs."

In Hamed's view, the Taleban were worse than the communists. Their time was "the worst time in our history", he says.

Now he has high hopes for the future and wants to learn German and computing.

Mohammed Nader Farhad says the returns are very good news - a sign of Afghans' love for their country.

The UNHCR has given many returnees cash or food allowances, and helped build houses and wells around the country.

Grave insecurity

Many returnees do face problems. Housing is one, with property prices having spiralled in the capital; unemployment is another.

Particularly in the south and east, where a Taleban-al Qaeda insurgency is growing, returnees, like others, face grave insecurity.

In these parts, says Paul O'Brien of the NGO Care International, the mass return of people was an inspiring sign of hope.

Hamid Karzai meets George Bush in Washington,  June 2004
Afghan President Hamid Karzai needs more money from abroad

But he warns that many have not seen returns on the investment they have made by coming back.

"If their needs aren't met soon by better funding, and there isn't a peace dividend soon, things could get unstable," he says.

There are still vast numbers of Afghan refugees - 2.3 million in Pakistan and Iran alone.

Nevertheless, the numbers choosing to come home or at last feeling it is safe to do so are transforming the face of this country.



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