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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 August 2007, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Afghan refugees flood back home
Refugees' trucks
Each day, hundreds of families arrive at the refugee centre
Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are returning from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, some after more than 25 years. The BBC's Alastair Leithead reports from a refugee centre north of the capital, Kabul.

The brightly coloured trucks jingle their way down the dirt track to the UN's refugee reception centre in Kabul, whole lives piled four metres high on the back.

One after another, their decorative metal chains providing a musical accompaniment to the convoy, they pull into the compound and entire families emerge from among the towering stacks of bags, buckets and wooden beams - the first part of their journey complete.

From the long bamboo ladders propped up against the sides, 12 families emerge from just two trucks, their cows poking their heads out the back, wondering where and when they will be grazing next after 24 hours on the road.

Every day hundreds of families arrive here and in another centre further up the road in Jalalabad, along with everything they own - also hoping for greener pastures in the home they left more than two decades ago.

There are three generations here - from the children who think it is all a fascinating game, to the old men and women who remember the Afghanistan they left during the Soviet occupation.

Closing camps

Millions fled then and during the civil war that followed, and since the Taleban fell in 2001, millions have been coming home with high expectations.

Mine awareness course
Mine awareness is vital for refugees returning to a former war zone

Mohammed Gul hands over the paperwork for his family to the UN coordinator, photographs identifying them all - they were living in a camp in Pakistan for more than 20 years, but were told it was closing.

The two options were relocate hundreds of miles away to another camp in a more remote part of Pakistan, or head back home.

The UN gives the children vaccines, the family some mine awareness training and around $100 per person for travel expenses - and to help them make a new start - but then it is up to them to return to their old land and homes - if they have not been taken.

The camp in Pakistan had become a permanent settlement with schools and clinics and good services - he is confident the future is brighter here.

"Now there is peace and stability in my country we are back," he said.

"The children can go to school and in the meantime we can weave carpets as we did in Pakistan."

But it is not as easy as that.

Huge influx

Afghanistan has coped with the returnees so far, but 100,000 or more in six weeks from Iran this summer, and the camps closing in Pakistan is becoming a problem.

Families watching TV
Afghanistan is flooded by a huge number of returning families

The UN's refugee agency representative in Kabul, Salvatore Lombardo, is concerned too many people who do not want to return are being sent back too quickly.

"If we are seeing a large number of people coming back let's say in a short period of time there is no doubt that this country will have a very, very serious problem to respond to that," he said.

And the hour-long drive north into the Shomali Plain reveals the scale of the problem.

At Beni Worsak, refugees who returned to homelessness and poverty in the slums of Kabul, rather than the new freedom they expected, have been given what they asked for - government land.

But that land is desert, miles from anywhere - sandwiched between the Bagram US military base and an American firing range.

There are water pumps now, but many of those arriving here are living in tents while those with the skills slowly mix mud and water to make bricks and houses.

Dire poverty

The rattle of gunfire from a helicopter gunship firing on the range echoes around the mountains surrounding the settlement - home now to hundreds.

Overloaded refugee truck
Some returning refugees find life extremely hard

"We eat dirt with our bread," Zulikha cries, stooping down and rubbing dust through her hands.

Her children are sick - one has awful sores on his face, huge swellings on his lower lip.

"There is nothing here, not even food - we want a school, a clinic where our children can have medicine."

Holding on to the UNHCR officer's hand she breaks down in tears: "I am a widow, I have no husband and my two sons are needy, but there is no work here."

It is a long way from the main road to where they have been put, and although there are some piecemeal jobs at the military base the land holds little.

The Afghan government is already struggling to bring the essentials to the people, and the flow of more and more refugees is going to make that job even harder still.

And still the trucks jingle up the mountains from Pakistan and the people keep coming.

Refugees arrive home to Afghanistan

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