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Last Updated: Monday, 18 June 2007, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Afghan village struggles against odds
The BBC's Soutik Biswas returns to an Afghan village, after visiting it in 2005 to link its residents with BBC News website readers from around the world. What has changed nearly two years on?

Rahmat Gul had not lost his saucy sense of humour when I met him again.

Soutik Biswas with villagers in Asad Khyl
Soutik Biswas (fourth from left) with some of the village men

When I asked him what kind of foreign aid would serve his village well, he quipped: "For starters, I need a foreign wife. I told you the last time, and I am telling you this time again."

Mr Gul was one of six residents of Asad Khyl, a dun-coloured, arid village of mud homes and shrubby vineyards in the rolling Shomali plains north of Kabul, who took part in our live One Day in Afghanistan project in September 2005.

Returning nearly two years later with questions from our readers to find out how their life had progressed, I found very little had changed.

Very little of Afghanistan's non-security development money - pegged at about $2.5bn for 2007 - is trickling down to this parched Pashtun village in the shadow of the Hindu Kush.

Give us water and we will show the world we don't need anybody's help
Mohammed Sharif,
Village headman

The number of families has risen from 300 to 400. A couple of wells have been dug, a narrow canal carrying a ribbon of muddy water runs through the village, there is electricity for five hours every evening and 60% of the homes have television.

That is really all there is to show for two years of development work - and Asad Khyl is actually better off than most villages in the troubled south and east of the country.

Joblessness is rife, and rising prices have made matters worse. Flour, cooking oil and meat are dearer.

And the villagers are still waiting for precious water.

Rising prices

Map of Asad Khyl
They need the water to turn their dust bowl into fertile farms again and grow apples, peaches, pomegranates and water melons.

The land still holds enough promise to lift people out of poverty here, but there is no sign of any irrigation water.

Asad Khyl used to be fertile land until Soviet fighter jets bombed the irrigation canals.

Pitched battles were fought in the area during the civil war in the 1990s, and later the Taleban devastated the place, burning down homes and mulberry bushes as they fought Northern Alliance forces.

"Give us water and we will show the world we don't need anybody's help. We will grow enough crops to feed ourselves and sell it in the market and take care of ourselves," says Mohammed Sharif, newly appointed village headman.

Shukrullah
Shukrullah wants guarantee of a job
Rising prices coupled with low government salaries - the government remains the biggest employer - has led to runaway corruption, which is eating into the vitals of Afghan society.

When Afghan people go to get their work done in the government, they are usually greeted with demands for shirni (sweets), a euphemism for bribes.

Things are so bad that when Mr Sharif went to a government blood bank to get a mandatory test done, he had to pay an employee there 300 Afghanis ($6).

The village, located in the relatively peaceful north of the country, has remained calm so far, but there is concern over recent rising violence in the neighbourhood - a woman radio journalist was killed in Parwan, a provincial governor was attacked on the highway and, further north, in Mazhar-e-Sharif, a suicide bomber struck on Saturday.

Haji Mohammed Saleh
I know of many Afghans who have returned to Pakistan, Iran and Russia
Haji Abdullah Saleh,
Village elder
When I first came to Asad Khyl, Afghanistan was spending about $700m - mostly from the US - on security. Today the figure is more than 10 times that, defence officials say, but insecurity is increasing.

Village elder and Supreme Court judge Haji Abdullah Saleh says many Afghans returning from the refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran are dismayed by the insecurity and joblessness, and have packed their bags to return to exile.

One of them is Gul Khan, whom we had found struggling to eke out a living last time. He gave up on Afghanistan a year ago, packed his bags and returned to Peshawar with his family.

"There are many people like Gul who are returning. I know of many Afghans who have returned to Pakistan, Iran and Russia. They panic when they see the level of joblessness here," says Haji Mohammed Saleh.

Neglect

The two young people we met last time are still carrying their hopes for the future and doggedly working towards it, but there are concerns.

Asad Khyl
The village still needs irrigation

Shaista, 16, continues to go to school and still wants to become a doctor. But her father has already begun telling her that she should drop out because "girls in our village have traditionally not gone to school".

Shukrullah, 20, is in sixth grade and still determined to become a civil engineer and help in his country's reconstruction. But he is worried when he sees a lot of young men hanging around idly because of lack of work.

Lal Bibi, the unfortunate war widow, mirrors the state of women in Afghanistan.

When a Dutch NGO came to the neighbourhood offering women training in keeping livestock and cows, she took it up. She even loaned money and bought a cow and sells the milk to buy her food.

What she wants to do is train herself in carpet weaving, embroidery or tailoring and begin working because there is simply no work for women in the village.

Lal Bibi doesn't want handouts, she just wants somebody to help her start a small business.

Shaista wants to study. Shukrullah wants the guarantee of a job. Lal Bibi wants a small interest-free loan. Rahmat Gul wants to grow more grapes and sell them in the market. And all villagers want some water to irrigate Asad Khyl's promising land.

They have not taken up arms, and they have not supported the Taleban. They want to make a hard, honest living. But the feeble, fickle and inefficient government has looked the other way.

Neglect of its people is Afghanistan's biggest tragedy in the making.






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