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Winter Takes Toll on Refugees Living in Kabul

Desperate conditions continue for displaced people who cannot to go home.
By Shahabuddin Tarakhel

Nazifa, six, looks dishevelled as she stands beside her father amid the puddles and snow outside the tent that is their home in the Chaman-e-Hozori section of Kabul.

Her blue eyes well up with tears as she calls out for her mother, who froze to death in December during one of the city’s first snowfalls.

Her father, Abdul Qahar, 60, tells how he brought his family of six to Kabul from the northern province of Kapisa three years ago. He told IWPR that his wife became ill when the cold weather arrived late in 2004. He said he took her to the hospital several times for treatment but he was unable to pay the doctor’s bills, and she died on December 20.

Since the collapse of the Taleban regime in 2001, dozens of international relief agencies have arrived in Afghanistan to provide help to those displaced by years of war and drought. Yet the capital still faces a serious refugee problem, and this year’s especially cold winter has dramatised the scale of the hardship.

About 3,000 refugee families are living either in tents or abandoned government buildings in Kabul, according to Mohammad Hafiz Nadim, spokesman for the ministry for refugees and repatriation.

He said there are currently about 30 “tent towns” in Kabul. About 300 families live in the Chaman-e-Hozori camp alone. At least three people have died there so far this winter.

Ajmal, 33, who came to Chaman-e-Hozori from Peshawar, Pakistan, was observing the third day of mourning for his mother's death by cooking rice.

“Two weeks ago when it was raining, our tent got wet, and because of that, my 55 year-old mother got sick,” he said. “We took her to the doctor but the medicine given to her was not effective. As a result she died of pneumonia.... If we had a home, my mother would be still alive.”

Parigul, 33, from the Paghman district west of Kabul, lost her eight-year-old son Khalid to pneumonia in that same tent camp.

"We don't have money to rent a home, we live in the tent because we have to. I myself, my four kids and my husband are all sick because of the cold," she said.

Pashtoon Gul, 32, from Kapisa province, has been living in the camp for three years. She suffered a miscarriage last year and another earlier this month. She fears her family won’t survive the winter and is asking the government and aid organisations for better shelter.

Shamsuddin, 45, has been caring for his nine children since his wife froze to death last year. He too is asking for better housing.

Why do they stay?

Many of the refugees questioned said they refuse to return to their home provinces, citing lack of security, shelter, schools and hospitals, and fear of warlords.

But Mohammad Hashim Mayar, coordinator for the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, ACBAR, said, "Displaced people don't want to return to their home areas because here in Kabul charitable organisations are providing aid for them."

He conceded that the refugees are not getting enough aid, though.

“It is a matter of sorrow that displaced people are dying and getting sick in the presence of dozens of non-governmental organisations and the central government,” he said. “The government and charitable organisations must strive to solve their problems.”

Nadim from the ministry of refugees and repatriation said the new government is aware of the problems and is currently working on a plan to provide land for the returnees to build homes on.

Meanwhile the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, is providing flour, oil, peas, medicines, blankets and heaters for those returnee families who are living in Kabul in tents and abandoned buildings. Farhad Nadiri, a spokesperson for UNHCR Kabul, said the organisation is also providing mobile medical clinics.

"These refugees settled in camps and abandoned buildings need more aid and UNHCR will try to provide it," said Nadiri, adding that his agency believes the government should provide homes and land for the returnees.

More than 3.5 million Afghan refugees have returned since UNHCR began its voluntary repatriation programme in 2002. Nadiri said this figure includes over 750,000 refugees who returned last year, mostly from Pakistan and Iran. He said that 160,000 of the refugees that UNHCR has helped return remain displaced within the country - mainly because they don’t have homes.

Arif, 42, who lives in the abandoned former Soviet embassy, was originally from the central province of Wardak. He’s asking the government for help.

“Once security is provided and schools and hospitals are built, we will return to our homes,” he said.

On January 4, about 50 returnees protested outside the Rural Rehabilitation Ministry demanding more support from the government and charity organisations. They were asking for jobs and for permanent homes to be built either in Kabul or their home provinces.

Gulchehra, 45, clad in a green burka, said she had just returned from Pakistan. "In Pakistan we could find food, but here we can't," she said.

Ramazan Nazar, another one of the demonstrators, said he was encouraged to leave Iran three months ago for Kabul because he heard on TV that “returnees would be provided with houses and work opportunities”. He said he and the other disgruntled returnees had initially lodged their complaints by writing a letter to the ministry of refugees and repatriation, but no action was taken.

The demonstrators vowed to keep protesting until they get help.

Shahabuddin Tarakhel is an IWPR staff reporter based in Kabul.

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