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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 December 2003, 10:46 GMT
Return to Afghanistan
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming a new state - but will those who fled ever want to go home?

Children pose by a bullet-ridden car (Pic: Sohaila Esmat)
Children by a bullet-ridden car (Photo: Suhaila Esmat)
Mohammed Arif Akbari is home. After 20 years in the UK, he has returned to help rebuild Afghanistan.

In the coming months he will put his civil engineering skills to good use for the new Ministry of Rural Affairs, one of a pioneering group of people trying to reconstruct the country.

As failed states go, Afghanistan is the benchmark. But as the loya jirga, the grand tribal council, tries to agree a constitution, they know that reconstruction needs people as well as dollars.

But do any of the UK's 50,000 Afghans think it is safe enough to go home?

It's been a bit of a dilemma - I did not want to put my children in a situation where they may ask me in the future why I gave up the opportunities they have
Mohammad Arif Akbari
Mohammad Akbari is part of a government-backed scheme to get professional people into reconstruction jobs.

He went back briefly in 1997 to marry, but until now felt the time was not right to return for good.

"I've been in the UK ages as I first came here on a university scholarship from the British Council," he says.

"When the situation worsened at home, it quickly became clear I would be in danger if I returned. I was accepted as a refugee and now I am a British citizen.

"But I have always wanted to go home and see if there was anything that I could do."

Mohammad will live with family in Kabul, and is under contract for six months. He hopes his wife and two young children can join him on holiday next year.

Returning schemes

The International Organisation of Migration runs a number of Home Office-funded schemes to help Afghans who want to return, including the project taking Mohammad.

The latest is Explore and Prepare, in which the head of the family is sponsored to test the waters. If the situation is right, others follow. If not, they can return to the UK.

Another scheme is for those awaiting a decision on their asylum case, which offers assistance-in-kind in Afghanistan.

So far, the take-up rate has been low. Just 100 Afghans have voluntarily returned under the various schemes, although there are applications in the pipeline, including 60 from professionals.

"It's a very good idea to allow people to go home and help their country," says Mohammad.

"But it's also been a bit of a dilemma because of the children. They are staying in Britain with my wife. I did not want to put them in a situation where they may ask me in the future why I gave up the opportunities they have."

Tensions high

Mohammad's mixed feelings are mirrored throughout the community. Most regard their country as chronically unstable and subject to the rule of warlords. In the most anarchic areas, those who return can be treated no differently to westerners - rich targets for bandits.

15 years on: Sohaila Esmat's photojournal of home

One Afghan not overly impressed with what she found was Suhaila Esmat.

Now a translator and post-graduate student, Suhaila's family arrived in London as refugees 15 years ago, when she was a teenager.

Back home, they had been happy, well-to-do people with business interests in Kabul and agricultural holdings in the north.

When her family returned for a month in September, they found their Kabul home ransacked. Even the wiring had been stripped from the walls.

"I was shaking as I went in the front door," she says. "There was a little shelf in the hall where the phone sat. It was perhaps the only thing left - the phone had long gone."

Suhaila found herself looked upon with suspicion, her Afghan accent modified by the years of speaking English.

Improvisation: Suhaila found people making the best of things
"I was wearing the same clothes as everyone else and on one occasion wearing a veil," she says.

"Someone remarked that I was 'walking very freely' and concluded I was not from Afghanistan. If we did not have the support of all our family, I would have felt far more threatened."

Her brother, Jawed, has stayed on for now. But when he considered travelling north to reclaim one business, he was warned he would be putting himself in considerable danger.

For tensions are extremely high in areas dominated by warlords. Even international aid work - an attractive option for many potential returnees - has become very risky.

"If Afghanistan is safe and stable, why are people still leaving for the UK?" says Suhaila.

Nevertheless, she's not entirely pessimistic, and is keen to find opportunities to work with women's development organisations in the coming years.

'Reassurance needed'

The Refugee Council supports voluntary schemes such as Explore and Prepare, which have proved a success with returns to Kosovo - three-quarters of those who took up the offer said the project was key in their decision to relocate.

UK Govt responsibilities:
Pay for travel and resettlement
Pre-departure vaccinations
Advice or help with job training
Afghan govt's role:
Legal resettlement prioritised
Legal recognition of marriages and children
Recognition of UK-gained qualifications
What the agencies do:
Help find work
Monitor individual's progress
Assist with return where applicable
But it warns that testing the waters is not the same as concluding a country is 100% safe.

"There's been a very low take-up of returns," a spokesman says. "People want reassurance from the government. The more reassurance people get, the more likely they are to take up the offers."

The Home Office says the return programmes are there for the best of reasons.

"We are encouraging Afghans to go back because there has been significant progress since the fall of the Taleban," says a spokesman.

"Not all parts are safe at the moment, but our Explore and Prepare scheme is there to help people assess the situation for themselves."

Which is precisely what Mohammad Arif Akbari will be doing right now.


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