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Rebuilding Afghanistan: De-mining, Providing Aid, Protecting Against Bandits - 2002-01-03

The war in Afghanistan went faster than expected. The clean-up and rebuilding will take much longer. The effort is now under way, complicated by the revival of banditry, land mines, and unexploded bombs that litter the country.

The horrors of war seemed to be over for a group of people returning to the village they had left 10 years ago north of Kabul. But their bus driver decided to turn off the main road and take a short cut. He hit an antitank mine that demolished the bus, killing all the homeward bound passengers.

Similar tragedies are sure to follow as Afghanistan converts to peace. With adequate funding, it will take almost a decade to remove 10 million land mines left by the Soviets and 25,000 unexploded U.S. bombs. More than 5,000 Afghans have been trained to do the job, which is difficult and dangerous.

Then there are the armed militias, which hold up relief convoys, demanding money and sometimes taking lives. Often they are in the employ of local warlords reestablishing their power.

Even so, aid is getting through, says Omar Daoudzai, director of the U.N. recovery program in Afghanistan. There is no time to lose with the onset of winter. In a camp outside Herat, 100 people are dying each day from starvation or exposure. Children wrapped in rags are too malnourished to move as they await their end,

"Many people in the villages need food. They need shelters. They need something to keep them warm like coats and blankets because the country has suffered so much for three-consecutive years of failed harvests because of the drought. And now the effects of war. So there is an immediate need for humanitarian assistance, and that after that, obviously, we need to help them rebuild their lives," Mr. Daoudzai says.

Crucial to rebuilding is an effective international presence, says Thomas Greene, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Afghanistan. Peace must be enforced against warlords who threaten it,

"I hope some kind of security force from Islamic countries can get deployed in the major cities which will assist in the equitable distribution of aid. In the northeast provinces in many areas, they have actually been reduced to eating grass, having consumed all the grain they might have used for sowing next year's harvest and killed their livestock," Mr. Greene says.

Mr. Greene says there are limits to international donors' patience. In his opinion, the United States is unfairly blamed for deserting Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal,

"Kabul had survived the Soviet occupation almost in tact and was destroyed by warring factions. If we in 1992 pretty much brought an end to our aid to Afghanistan, it was because the Afghan factions were so busy fighting among themselves," he says.

The Afghan refugees are poised to return with the coming of spring and the planting season, says Mr. Daoudzai. Afghanistan can have a rebirth if its people put their country ahead of their ethnic group.

That means supporting the interim government now installed in Kabul,

"We know this is our last chance to have a sustainable peace. The interim government may have some shortcomings, but talking as an Afghan, it is the duty of each and every one of us to make the interim government effective," he says.

With a government that works, how might Afghanistan eventually look? Writing about the 1920s, traveler Robert Byron called a Kabul road leading to a now vanished palace "one of the most beautiful avenues in the world."