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Afghanistan's 'Displaced' Join Returning Refugees in Struggle to Rebuild - 2002-05-09

With the end of the fighting in most of Afghanistan, attention is focused on the estimated four million refugees who are beginning to return home, in droves. But another group of homeless Afghan families is also trying to resume their lives. More than one million displaced people, who also fled their homes, took shelter inside Afghanistan instead of leaving the country.

At the Maslakh Camp, 100 kilometers east of the Iranian border, families manage a precarious existence and struggle to return home.

Abdullah Gul stands in front of his mud-brick home in Maslakh Camp and looks impassively out over the thousands of similar shelters that stretch as far as the eye can see, across the rim of the high plains of western Afghanistan's Herat Province. Lying at his feet are all his possessions: two trunks, three bundles of clothes, blankets and pots. Abdullah brought his family of six to Maslakh Camp, after three years of drought devastated his life.

"Three years ago," he said, "I had sheep, cows, land. But I sold them for rice and bread. I ate that. Then I had to come here."

Abdullah says he wants to return to his home in Ghor Province, several days away by truck. This is a camp for displaced people. They are not considered refugees because, although they left their homes, they did not leave Afghanistan. In some ways, they suffer more than refugees, because they do not receive the same attention from the international community. Officials say the displaced people are among the poorest of the poor in Afghanistan. They are mostly subsistence farmers and herders whose livelihood was destroyed by war and drought in the mid and late 1990s.

At its peak, Maslakh camp housed more than 100,000 people and was reported to be the largest camp in Asia. In recent months, 40,000 people have left. But it is still a small city, with big problems. Camp Manager Hubert Binon says a major problem is that the camp's inhabitants have been beaten down to the survival level.

"They are only concerned with their own individual, little-family problems," he said. "It is very difficult to have any kind of cooperation among them. There's nothing wrong with that. That's the way it is. But it's very difficult to work with."

As Mr. Binon makes his daily rounds, he is accosted by people seeking his help. Many hold in their outstretched hands a small paper booklet that is the key to their existence here - their ration card. It provides their lifeline, a daily ration mostly of unleavened bread.

Residents used to receive wheat flour, but that was replaced by bread after too much of the wheat was found for sale in local markets. Mr. Binon says people are constantly losing their cards. Officials must then investigate to make sure it is not part of a popular scheme to obtain a second card and thereby double the family ration.

At another stop, a resident somehow has come into possession of some materials belonging to the camp and is building a fence. Mr. Binon tells the man the fence must come down and the materials must be returned.

A kilometer away, at the departure center, Mohammad Ibrahim is loading his family's possessions into a truck leaving for his home village in Ghor. He is an older man with long white hair, a bone-hard face and fierce eyes. He is angry. "I came here hungry," he said. "I will leave here hungry." He shakes open a jute sack, showing two aluminum pots, a pair of rubber boots, some plastic sheeting and a large box of seed.

"They give us these few things," he said. "Our province is cold, but they didn't give us any blankets." Asked why he is returning, he said,"here we have nothing. If we go back, at least they will give us something."

In addition to transportation, relief agencies have set up centers at the final destinations to give the returnees food, plastic sheets for shelter and seeds to plant. Unfortunately, the agency managing Maslakh Camp, the International Organization for Migration, this week announced it has run out of funds. And, as a result, it is temporarily suspending its programs. This means the dispossessed families will have to make do with even less support, whether they stay or choose to go.