Page last updated at 07:31 GMT, Wednesday, 10 August 2005 08:31 UK

Struggling to survive in Afghanistan

ByJill McGivering
BBC News, Afghanistan

File photograph of Afghan refugees in Iran
About three and a half million people have now returned to Afghanistan
About an hour's drive north of the Afghan capital Kabul, the mountains give way to the Shomali Plain.

Traditionally it is a highly fertile farming region but it became a battleline in fighting between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance in the late 1990s.

About a quarter of a million people fled the region in the late 1990s, many to Pakistan.

We drove down a dirt track to find Anwar Shah, a middle aged man, slowly mixing mud in the family's yard. He was rebuilding the family's small mud-brick house, now shared by three generations.

It's worse here than when we were in Pakistan
Anwar Shah

He brought his wife and children back to the area three years ago after three years in Pakistan. But although he was glad to be back in Afghanistan, he said it was a struggle to survive.

"Life is hard here," he told me. "If we have food in the morning we don't have any in the evening.

"It's worse here than when we were in Pakistan. When we were there life was better. Better because there was work. There's no work in Afghanistan."

On the rare occasions he did find work as an unskilled labourer, he said, he earned just two US dollars a day, barely enough to feed the family.

Refugee woes

Although food is scarce, Anwar Shah's family did at least have land.

Afghan refugees from Pakistan
Many come back to a shortage of basic facilities

About three and a half million people have now returned to Afghanistan, many coming back without land, competing for shelter in a country in ruins.

Many people are coming back to a shortage of jobs, of shelter and of basic infrastructure, like schools and clinics.

The desperate need for work has brought a flood of refugees to the capital, Kabul.

The city is overwhelmed and rapidly expanding.

In west Kabul, families who have returned with enough money to buy land are building their own houses here on newly released plots, mud brick by brick.

We found the Hideri family - father, mother and daughters - labouring together in the stifling heat. They came back last year after 25 years in Iran.

The land they have bought has no water and no electricity. The family's sons have already returned to Iran after failing to find work.

Here we're completely ignored and treated like animals. Why should we live here?
Raz Mahamat
Community representative

Zohara, the daughter, was a toddler when the family fled and grown up longing to return. Now, though, she is bitterly disappointed.

"In Iran, we had electricity around the clock and a refrigerator," she said.

"But not here. If we have left-over food it goes rotten and makes the children ill. The doctor is far away and it's hard for us to get to him."

Desperate conditions

She's also shocked by local attitudes.

In Iran, she had much more freedom, she said. Men didn't harass young women.

"Here men are different," she said, her voice rising with anger.

Women in Kabul
Women have considerably less freedom

"A while ago a man was rude to me and when I confronted him I was told 'you're not in Iran now, this is Afghanistan'."

But perhaps the worst off are those who come back to Afghanistan with no means of buying land or supporting themselves.

We visited a fly-blown shanty town of mud shacks and tents, by the side of a busy main road in Kabul.

About 60 families live here in squalid, desperate conditions, without clean water or sanitation.

They receive occasional handouts, they said, but very little.

We're struggling between hope and hopelessness. That is the reality
Dr Mohammad Azam Dotfarr
Afghan refugee minister

In one tiny bare room we found Afghan Gul and some of the nine children who share it with her. Her husband didn't survive the last hard winter.

The children all worked in the local market, she told me, but no matter how hungry they were, she always made sure they went to school.

She was illiterate herself, she said, and thought education was crucial.

Limited resources

Community representative Raz Mahamat expressed the mood of anger and despair.

"This is our own country and our own government," he said.

"But when we were in Pakistan, we had access to water and everything. Here we're completely ignored and treated like animals. Why should we live here?"

We put his concerns to Afghanistan's minister of returnees and refugees, Dr Mohammad Azam Dotfarr.

He agreed that about 40% of returnees are very vulnerable.

The government had started a major land distribution programme, he told me, but resources were very limited.

He was well aware of the mood of impatience and frustration - but called on people not to despair.

"This is a transitional time for Afghanistan," he said.

"We're struggling between hope and hopelessness. That is the reality."

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