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UNHCR: Fewer Refugees Fleeing Afghanistan - 2001-12-18

The United Nations refugee agency says the large number of Afghans returning home may be due to the recent Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. The adult Afghans may still be undecided whether to come or go, but their children, according to another UN agency, know exactly what they want - to go back to school.

The U.N. refugee agency says more than 33,000 Afghans have returned to their country since the fall of the western city of Herat in early November. More than half of them traveled last week from neighboring Iran and Pakistan where there are some 3.5 million Afghan refugees.

Peter Kessler of the UNHCR says the number of Afghans fleeing the country has dropped dramatically from 200 people a day over a two week period to a mere 100 who sought refuge on Sunday at a U.N. camp in Pakistan.

Mr. Kessler credits the change with new political authorities in Kandahar province and across Afghanistan, but says the recent Muslim festival has played a major role in the returns.

"The numbers of people fleeing and the numbers of people going have had a lot to do with the Eid celebrations. So it's really not possible to say until perhaps later this week where the numbers might be headed," he said. Clearly the big surge in returns last week was at least in part due to the Eid celebrations and people's interest and desire to get home to see their families, check on their property and celebrate the end of Ramadan with their loved ones," he said.

The U.N. refugee agency says it will demand that Afghanistan's new interim authority locate and return its looted property as part of efforts to restart relief work inside the country.

For its part, the U.N. children's agency says Afghan children want nothing more than to start getting an education as soon as possible. Spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte, recently back from a visit to Afghanistan, says Afghan girls are now dreaming of becoming teachers, doctors and engineers something unheard of during the rule of the Taleban.

Ms. Belmonte said UNICEF is devoting its reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan to educating children who make up nearly half of the country's population. "Education, education, education. It is the number one focus for us and the closest you get to a magical wand for the possibility of change," she said.

UNICEF has said it recently gave several disposable cameras to Afghan children to record the way they see life. Ms. Belmonte said this marked the first time in six years that the children could take photographs - a practice strictly forbidden by the Taleban.

"One 16-year-old girl took a picture of a food distribution point run by the World Food Program. She had never seen so much food before in one place, at one time ,and was amazed by the sight," she said.

Ms. Belmonte said most of the children were just thrilled to be able to take pictures of their families all together.