After more than ten years of the Euro-American occupation, the illusion of a “New Afghanistan” has vanished in the midst of an increasingly bloody war. Among those who lost the most in this failed Euro-American imperial project, there are hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who were forced to leave their homes.
“Many of the villagers died. I saw a dead woman. I saw her four children. All of them were dead. They were killed in an American air strike. Only their father survived. He was not at home during the attack,” recalls 40-year-old Ghulam Nabi from Miar Wadi, a village in Sangin district, Helmand province. Fearing for his life and the lives of his dearest, Ghulam Nabi fled from the village in which he was born. Together with his 10-member family, he found a temporary shelter on the outskirts of Kabul, at the Charahi Qambar IDP camp. “We ran away. We left almost everything behind. We wanted to survive,” tells Ghulam Nabi, sitting in front of his humble home, built of wooden poles and dried mud.
Since Ghulam Nabi left his village, he has never returned. “Only a few people stayed in the village, only those who could not afford to move. They don’t have enough money for the journey,” he adds. Even though life in Kabul is safer than life in their village, his family struggles to survive. Back home, they were farmers, they had their own land and a few heads of cattle. Now, they lead a miserable life, many times unable to provide food for themselves. “I have no work. We are waiting for the donations. When we came here, we were helped by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. They gave us some bags of flour, a few liters of cooking oil, and some sugar and tea. After that we have not received anything else from them. We were only helped by one businessman who gave us some food,” reveals Ghulam Nabi, a father of two sons. His 23-year-old son is currently working as an apprentice in a small workshop. For free. The younger son is 5 years old.
Three years ago another villager from Miar Wadi also found his new home in the Charahi Qambar camp. Noor Mohammed, 30, is the head of a 5-member family, which beside him consists of his wife and their three children, two sons and a daughter. The eldest son is 5 years old; the younger children are 3 and 2 years old. In his village Noor Mohammed worked as a tailor, but now he depends completely on humanitarian aid. “Many people help. But there are so many families here that each one gets only a small part of the aid,” he tells me. Due to his health problems he can not work. “The doctors don’t know what is wrong. I feel weak. Sometimes I faint without any reason.” The doctors, working in a small clinic set up in a tent at the edge of the camp, are not able to help him.
The Charahi Qambar IDP camp was set up five years ago. When I first visited it in 2008, it consisted mostly of tents which were pitched up with patched canvases. In the past three years the settlement has expanded over a considerably larger area and evolved into a maze of small mud houses, usually covered only with canvases. Between the houses there are many winding, narrow passages, crossed by ditches which serve as a sewage system. In some places there are piles of garbage filling the ditches and thus causing the sewage to spill over. In the settlement, which is now home to about 700 families (or approximately 4,000 individuals), they still have only one well. As the water pump at the well often breaks up, drinking water is carried in plastic water cans from a nearby residential area. Two big tents, a gift from the Afghan non-governmental organization Aschiana, are used as classrooms for the children. Every child who comes to school gets a piece of bread a day as a reward. The slice of bread is his lunch.
The Charahi Qambar camp is the largest settlement for war-displaced people in Kabul. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), there were 13,500 war-displaced people living in Kabul at the beginning of this year. They were settled at 30 different locations across the city. The Charahi Qambar camp is mostly populated by families coming from Helmand province, but there are also some IDPs from the southern province of Kandahar living there. “We came here four years ago. Our house, our property, our cattle, everything was destroyed. We had fifty, sixty sheep, some cows and bulls for the work on the fields. We lost everything,” tells 50-year-old Shahzada from Pashman village, situated in the Panjwai district, Kandahar province. “They bombarded our village. They destroyed our house. At the time of the air strike we were working in the fields, so fortunately we all survived. Nobody from our family died,” recalls Shahzada. He claims that about 170 people from his village have been killed since the beginning of the war.
After arriving in Kabul Shahzada’s family built a small mud house at the edge of the Charahi Qambar settlement. Their house consists of just two rooms, not even 10 square meters big. Since the house stands just by the sewage ditch the dirty water from the ditch leaks into the house. When Shahzada lifts the rug in one of the house corners, the soil there is really wet. The smell is awful. “We can’t live like this,” Shahzada says. How do they survive? Where do they get the money needed for survival? “Now I am a daily laborer. I wait with other men by the street. If someone needs us, they pick us up. If there is enough work, we make 300 Afghanis (approximately 6 Dollars) a day,” says Shahzada, head of a 9-member family. Among them are five children aged from two to thirteen.
There are eight families from Shahzada’s village living in Charahi Qambar. Among them there is also the family of Shahzada’s nephew, 30-year-old Aminullah, head of a 17-member family, with two wives and 14 children. Aminullah tells me that he lost six members of his family during the war: five of them were killed by the Taliban, and one by the American forces. The attack carried out by the Taliban was an act of revenge. “We worked for the Americans. We were digging their ditches when they were building a military base. One day my relatives left for work in a rickshaw. The Taliban ambushed them. They shot at them and killed them all. And then they stopped other workers, too. They cut off the ears of thirteen workers,” explains Aminullah. It was that tragic event which convinced him it was better for him and his family to leave their home village.
In the Jangalak district of Kabul, behind an old abandoned factory, stands the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MORR). It is hidden behind high walls, barbed wire and many armed policemen. At the entrance to the complex of the Ministry’s buildings, the policemen check every visitor. Then, before entering the offices of the Ministry’s highest representatives, visitors are checked once again. Although Abdul Samad Hami, the Deputy Minister of Refugees and Repatriation, fears for his life even in such a protected building in the relatively safe city of Kabul, he believes that the southern provinces of the country, which are still engaged in bloody battles, are safe enough for the war-displaced people to return. According to him, all the IDPs that seek shelter in the Charahi Qambar camp as well as many other IDPs living in other Afghan cities are not real IDPs. “A war-displaced person is someone who leaves his home because of the war, and later, when the fighting is over, he returns. But in the Charahi Qambar camp there are people who have been living there for several years now. Their home region Helmand is now safer, but they do not wish to return. They prefer staying in Kabul because here they have more possibilities to find a job. When they first came here, they really were war-displaced persons. But now they are economic migrants, seeking better work opportunities,” he claims. “So they are not entitled to receive humanitarian aid anymore.”
When the MORR identifies groups of war-displaced persons who are entitled to receive aid, it does not mean that the aid will actually be distributed. Even when the distribution of aid is carried out successfully, it happens not as a consequence of some long-term strategy but purely by chance. If the MORR has enough funds, aid is provided. If, on the other hand, there is no money, there is also no aid. “We are able to provide the people only with short-term humanitarian aid, food and some non-food items. We try to meet the IDPs basic living needs for the first year after their displacement,” says Hami. The MORR’s budget almost entirely depends on the mercy of foreign donors. “The Government is responsible for the operating costs of the MORR, for the salaries and the administration costs. But there is no money for a single humanitarian project. This year we prepared some proposals and presented them to the Government, but they did not accept them. So we are forced to sit and wait for individual donors, for foreign Embassies, for businessmen. If, for example, an Embassy sends us some food, we take it and distribute it among the displaced persons,” explains Hami. But since they do not get financial or any other support on a regular basis, the distribution of aid is carried out sporadically.
According to data gathered by the UNHCR there were about 473,000 war-displaced persons in Afghanistan in August 2011, which is a 33% increase (or 154,000 persons) from September 2010. This count includes both war-displaced persons as well as those who have left their homes because of natural disasters. Nevertheless, the IDPs who have been forced to flee from their homes since 2001 – the year of the American invasion – represent the majority of the displaced population. With the exception of the northern provinces, which are relatively safe, all other provinces have “produced” tens of thousands of IDPs over the last few years. In April 2011, there were slightly more than 174,000 IDPs in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzghan and Zabul, about 93,000 IDPs in the eastern provinces of Nuristan, Nangarhar, Laghman, Khost, Paktika and about 105,000 IDPs in the western provinces of Herat, Farah, Ghor and Badghis. All the organizations that deal with the displaced population recognize that the actual number of all the IDPs is considerably higher than the official number. During the past years, many IDPs settled down with their relatives and friends, so the organizations were unable to detect their movements. These people have never become a part of the statistics.
In the eastern part of Kabul, in an area known as Bagrami, another IDP camp can be found. It also consists of small houses, built of wooden poles and dried mud. The settlement is currently occupied by approximately 350 families from Helmand province. They arrived two years ago. “The Americans bombed our village. They killed my father, my mother, my brother. Every family in the village has lost some of its members,” says 52-year-old Ibrahim, head of a 27-member family. They come from Zumbelay village, Gereshk district. Ibrahim's village is under Taliban control. When the NATO forces attack them, the Taliban withdraw, and then, when the NATO forces leave, the Taliban return. Because of frequent battles, the village is almost completely devastated. “It is impossible to return. There is still fighting, I’ve heard it on the radio. Only a few families remained there,” says Ibrahim. He estimates that there are about 250 families from his village living now in the Bagrami IDP camp. Practically all the villagers have moved to Kabul.
“We survived thanks to humanitarian aid. When we arrived, we were helped by the MORR. But they were last seen here about a year and a half ago,” says Ibrahim. They were are also helped by the UNHCR, which gave them some coal and jackets, and the World Food Programme (WFP), which on a monthly basis provided them with some basic food, flour, oil, and peas. Since most people in the settlement are unemployed, humanitarian aid is essential for their survival. Some of IDPs work, but only occasionally as daily laborers. “I have eight sons. The elder ones are between twelve and twenty years old. Only the eldest of them, who has already finished school, is now working. As a daily laborer,” says Ibrahim. Ibrahim's cousin, 60-year-old Mohammed Jar, who has together with his family also found shelter in Bagrami, faces a similar situation. “My daughter, she was seven years old, was killed in an air strike. The house was completely destroyed. We also lost two cows during the air strike,” says Mohammed Jar, indicating the reason for their escape to Kabul two years ago. Due to the lack of employment, his 11-member family is largely dependent on humanitarian aid. Only two sons from his family occasionally work as daily laborers.
The problems that the IDPs face when looking for a job are caused by different reasons. Since most of them are farmers, it is difficult for them to work in urban areas. As the vast majority is also illiterate, they can only perform simple manual work. When I talked to the displaced people in the past years, they also often complained about being discriminated. As they mostly come from the southern provinces, where the Taliban movement is very strong, members of the new pro-American regime automatically identify them as supporters of the Taliban. And so their possibilities to get a job in the public sector are non-existent. “Discrimination certainly exists. People who come from Helmand are different and this difference can be seen at first glance. They wear long beards, have different clothes, speak a different language, they behave differently. And all this reminds the people of the Taliban times. So, unfortunately, the IDPs have become victims of these memories,” says Hami. “They remind the people here in Kabul of the times when the Taliban tried to force their culture on them.”
All war-displaced persons, to whom I had the opportunity to speak, were civilians, almost all of them farmers or shepherds, who have never been a part of the Taliban movement. They have never been members of Al Qaeda. They have never threatened the U.S.A. They have never threatened Europe. They have never threatened “world peace”. Yet, in the times of "Enduring Freedom" – as the American military operation in Afghanistan is called – they have lost practically everything they had. They lost their modest homes, their farms, their livestock. As the Afghan Government and the Occupying Powers rarely provide compensation for property damage, the vast majority of displaced people will never be repaid for the losses they suffered during the war. The damage inflicted on them by the Taliban will also never be refunded. For this reason, the IDPs are among those who lost the most in the war. Instead of being able to continue cultivating their fields, they are forced to stagnate as daily laborers on the outskirts of major cities.
“Before the war, it was nice,” said Shahzada, referring to life in his village during the Taliban regime. “But now there is no way back. Everything is lost.” Although Government representatives regularly accuse the IDPs of not wanting to return to their villages, the IDPs to whom I had the opportunity to speak assured me that in case the security situation improved, they would return to their villages immediately.
Vasja Badali? is currently a researcher at the Institute of Criminology at the Faculty of Law, Ljubljana, Slovenia.
This article was first published in Perspectives & Reflections, part of Maribor – The European Capital of Culture 2012.