Dreaming of Exile

For many of Afghanistan's returning refugees, exile abroad was better

October 21, 2002


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ It wasn't exactly what Abdul Fatah had in mind when he packed up his life as a refugee in Pakistan two months ago and came home on the heels of a mammoth influx of foreign aid meant to help resurrect this war-battered nation.

Now he lives in a hole in the wall _ of a bombed-out building in Afghanistan's bombed-out capital _ and dreams of living in exile again.

The U.N. refugee agency says more than 1.75 million Afghans have returned from neighboring countries since March. But increasingly, a small number are going back the other way, or trying to, disillusioned with out-of-reach rents, a lack of jobs and a soaring cost of living.

"I expected to find work here, but there's nothing. I can barely feed my family," the 46-year-old Fatah said. "We were better off in Pakistan. I want to go back."

The problem for most, though, is they simply can't afford to.

The U.N. refugee agency first spotted families heading back to Pakistan in late August, said UNHCR spokeswoman Maki Shinohara. The numbers picked up in mid-September, and now about 1,200 people are heading back across the border every week.

The reasons for leaving vary, Shinohara said. For some, it's a seasonal migration that happens every year _ Peshawar, across the border in Pakistan, stays warm in contrast to Afghanistan's icy winters. For others, it's a lack of work, a lack of schools or a lack of affordable accommodation. For a few, it's a realization that Afghanistan isn't as secure as they thought.

Fatah was a refugee in Peshawar when he decided it was safe enough to return to Afghanistan.

Selling off a cart he once used to hawk vegetables, Fatah gathered his six children _ his wife had died _ and packed into a truck paid for by UNHCR.

At the end of the road, Fatah got a bag of wheat, a piece of plastic sheeting and $60 from the U.N. refugee agency. Then he was on his own.

"We looked for a place to live, but we couldn't afford to pay any rent anywhere. We saw some others (former refugees) living here and said, 'Can we be next to you?'"

Fatah's new home, in a three-story former shoe factory, looks like it was hit by an earthquake. But it has an important advantage: the rent is free.

It's not hard to see why.

A top corner of the bullet-spattered building has collapsed onto the floor below it, forming an arch of rubble that precariously shelters a family squatting there.

Fatah's own house on the bottom floor is a tiny concrete enclosure that serves as living room, dining room and bedroom _ depending on the time of day. The entrance, covered with a blanket, seems to have been knocked through the wall with a sledgehammer.

Breakfast for Fatah's entire family one morning comprises leftovers from the night before: four potatoes in sauce, a small chicken leg _ and the hope some bread would be coming.

In January, international donors pledged $4.5 billion to help rebuild Afghanistan over the next five years. But President Hamid Karzai said last week only $890 million had arrived, and almost all of that had gone to the United Nations and private aid agencies.

The divide between Fatah's life and the foreigners who came to help people like him is phenomenally vast.

U.N. employees cruise the streets of Kabul in four-wheel drive vehicles, earning 100 times more in daily allowances that top off their salaries than the single dollar Fatah can make in a day _ if he's lucky to find work on a construction site.

What is clear is that little of the aid has trickled down to the devastated warrens of Kabul, where an estimated 500,000 returnees have settled.

"Lots of aid organizations have come here and written our names down, but they haven't come back," said Sher Aqa, another inhabitant of the wasted shoe-factory.

Shinohara said aid agencies were stockpiling food and supplies as temperatures start to drop. Fatah has strung towels and blankets across empty windows on one side of his house to keep out the cold night air.

Fatah said he would stick it out in Kabul a few more weeks. Aqa was more blunt.

"I would go back to Pakistan today if I could. But I can't afford it," the 24-year-old carpenter said. "Who wants to be in Kabul with no job and no heat. Winter is coming."

Copyright 2002 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.