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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 August 2007, 18:03 GMT 19:03 UK
Turkmens' happy Afghan return
Pakistan is closing its large Jalozai camp, which has housed thousands of Afghan refugees for nearly three decades. Many refugees returning home from Pakistan and Iran have had a very difficult time, especially those who are poor.

But there are brighter spots, too - found for example at a settlement for returned ethnic Turkmen families about 20 minutes' drive from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, as the BBC's Charles Haviland discovered on a recent visit to Balkh province.

Under a canopy between two squat houses, men in checked turbans sit on mats, in vigorous conversation with visiting officers from the UN refugee agency.

Returned Afghan refugees in Pakistan
The "shura" was the first of its kind in many years

These are the baking plains of northern Afghanistan which stretch for hundreds of miles into the interior of Central Asia. Outside the shade, the surroundings look bleached white. On the edge of it, boys and girls hover, fascinated. Some of the men hold children - women are nowhere to be seen.

This is a "shura", a gathering like a traditional village council. But this shura is new: men who years ago fled to Pakistan from different villages in this region, now brought together in this settlement for returned refugees.

Village, tribal and religious leaders tell the visitors about the latest needs.

The returned refugees say that life is better for their children

At the moment the 100-odd families here share just one pump which gives salty water. The government brings them a big tankerful each week, but it's not enough. They say lack of water is stopping families moving here, and even those who have bought plots of government land here for $180 are deterred.

They would like a clinic and a school.

They would appreciate financial help to back up their trades like carpet-weaving, welding and carpentry.

Visiting UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) programme officer Alex Mundt can give some reassurance.

"They will soon be prospecting for fresh water, and they are reasonably sure of finding it," he said.

Barren soil

So enthusiastic is the UN that it now wants to set up a system of small loans for carpet-weavers.

Khodai Berdy
We feel very good now - the only problem is water
Returned Afghan refugee Khodai Berdy

A new village is being born here.

There are 53 houses built of mud and brick in the traditional style with much of the material supplied by the UNHCR. Each has a small, neat toilet house.

Several dozen other families who did not qualify for UNHCR help are in any case building their own houses, some of which are going up as we visit. One man who works at a nearby industrial park has hired other returned refugees as builders.

At one end of the settlement a mosque is being built. A man returns home with his herd of sheep and a donkey, while the sound of cars sweeps across the barren soil from the nearby highway.

Father-of-three Khodai Berdy showed me around the house he and his family took six months to build.

Like the others here, they came back to Afghanistan three or four years ago. They couldn't return to their home village, not far away, because someone else had taken his land.

But Khodai's situation has now eased. His was one of the families that received UNHCR help, and they built it with their own hands.

"At first when we came here, at least three people in this place got ill because of the heat, and died," he says. "Now we've built this house. It's very good. It's resistant to water and the rays of the sun. We feel very good now - the only problem is water."

'Good earnings'

Khodai is relieved not to be living in a tent any more, or having to stay with relatives.

One of his two main rooms is devoted to carpet-making - a trade he pursues alongside keeping a small shop.

Rebuilding work under way
The retuned refugees are slowly re-building their lives

Nearby, Doord Bibi works with her grand-daughters. She, too, is making carpets - it is a craft traditional to the Turkmen ethnic community from which they come.

A tiny, spirited widow of 70, Doord has none of the shyness many Afghan women have.

The work is fiddly and she says her eyes and hands have suffered. But she's been weaving carpets since her teens and is positive.

"I get designs from traders and businessmen," she says. "Those are what I weave. The work is very good - we get good earnings for it."

What's clear is that there is a spirit of self-help here. That heartens the UNHCR's Alex Mundt, who would like to see the place diversifying.

"The government here in Balkh had a real interest in regenerating the carpet weaving industry here," he says.

"We would like to take advantage of that interest and actually start to build out, so that you don't have 1,000 carpet-weaving families but you have landless families who have other skills to contribute.

"So maybe some teachers will come here, some health workers, so you'd form a real community, just as you find in any village."

At the settlement's single pump, children laugh and play as men pump the water in the evening light.

This community keenly hopes to find a deep source of fresh water nearby. Providing that happens, with plenty of land to expand, the several dozen families here anticipate an influx of new neighbours - and the emergence of a new and viable settlement of people who, whatever their difficulties, are glad to be home again.

"I lived in Pakistan 15 years," says Doord Bibi. "I came back four years ago. And I love it here because it is my home country."

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