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Part II : Field Report 2003
The advantage of coming to these regions every six or so months, is to be able to monitor an increasingly complex situation. The last time I visited the area was in May 2002, where, in the blistering heat, I was confronting a post 9/11 world full of trepidation and hope for a brighter future in Afghanistan. Today, just over half a year later, one can only say that the situation is very bleak indeed.

The improbable return of the Afghan refugees

From speaking to number of Afghans from all walks of life, in schools,refugee camps, hospitals, one gets the same message of disillusionment and dejection regarding their prospects in Afghanistan. Teachers are especially desperate: many of them working today in unregistered schools in Pakistan were former professionals employed by government institutions and their aim has been to go home to a life-style they had previously achieved, even if it meant enduring some hardship. So most have made some attempt to return to Afghanistan. But what they were confronted with went well beyond anything bearable.
Take the case of Jamil who teaches maths and science in one of the RAWA schools in a Rawalpindi slum; he is in fact an engineer in his forties and went back to Kabul to try and get his former job on the water board. He found himself scorned and rebuffed: “The job was taken by some young fellow who does n’t have any experience. But of course, he’s well connected”. Not being able to find work to feed his family, he returned to Pakistan, where he can still eke out some kind of living, even though Pakistani police is putting enormous pressure on Afghans to leave, proceeding to frequent and random arrests of refugees.

Nazima, a maths teacher in another RAWA school tells the same story: she was an architect employed by her city in the Mazaar-el-Sharif area for 15 years.
When her husband was killed by the Taliban and she was ousted from her employment like all professional women, she fled with her five children to Pakistan. She could n’t wait to get back to Afghanistan. “I was really happy at the prospect of going home so I applied to get my job back: I tried again and again, but it was rejected… Of course, I’d love to start my own business as an architect, but I just don’t have the money”. So it’s back to teaching and embroidering handicrafts which will then be sold the increasingly rarefied Western travellers.
It ‘s the same story everywhere. Just about everyone I met has tried or has someone in their family who has attempted a return, but many come back,distraught. Of course, it’s very difficult for a formerly well-off middle class to return to a menial job, especially if they are no longer young. As a refugee, you can expect a down-sizing of expectations because you perceive it as temporary, but going back home and experiencing a reduction of status is extremely hard, especially in an area of the world where class is a contemporary interpretation of the timeless caste system. I was told of one former teacher turned fruit seller in Kabul who exhibits his framed diploma on his cart in the middle of his apples and oranges.
For people coming from rural areas, the return is not so bad if their villages have not been destroyed. In fact, a number of Pakistan’s four million refugees have been returning home every summer for years to escape the scorching heat and keep and eye on things. This is the case for 55 year old Muhammad who has lived in Shawarli refugee camp for 18 years. He’s spent years looking after the water system in the camp- a relatively comfortable situation, but he’s decided to go home with his eight children (from one wife only”). The political situation in his town seems to be stable enoughto warrant his return.

In another camp, the appalling Kababian which sprawls over several sub-camps, one of the local chiefs has decided to stay: he has ekeed out a comparatively ‘comfortable’ life with one cow, four rabbits, two hens, his own well and a couple of fields which he has appropriated. Despite his claims to the contrary, his probable business dealings with the local Pakistani authorities have surely contributed to his situation in this poorly run camp where the main industry is selling and sorting of garbage brought in from the city by children who trek to and fro lugging bags of filthy plastic and paper which then is sold for four rupees a kilo…
And even though nobody will ever admit it, drugs and arms are big business in most camps. Anything and everything is smuggled, even tea and clothes from Peshawar to Lahore where prices are higher. Buses are being stopped constantly by Pakistani policemen who briefly prod at the outsize bags most people (Pakistanis or Afghanis) seem to lug with them from one city to the next, but there are arrangements to be made with the bus-driver…
"Marie-Claude Auger"
The problem is endless, it’s impossible to know where to start tackling it.The Pakistanis have planned to throw everyone out within the next three years, and they have started by bulldozing two major camps (Nasir-Bagh and Kacha-Gali) in the Peshawar area. Naturally these practises are odious: but their own people are frequently just as miserable as the Afghanis and watch with disbelief as aid pours in the direction of these much-hated refugees (even if a lot of it disappears on the way) and little ever goes to their own poor.

In the meantime, the kids one meets are very excited, especially the boys in the school yards: “I’m going home to rebuild my country” they all say- but their parents think different. Saida, a teacher whose husband works in Sweden (I don’t really know what he’s doing, but he sends me money) is worried. The eldest of their six sons has started at Kabul university. “I’m so worried about him, there’s news of violence every day” she sighs.” I can’t wait to have him back”. Even if it means possible arbitrary arrest by Pakistani police.

The Afghan reality

Who’s to blame? The political situation is very difficult. The people I met generally feel sympathy for Karzai but know that the situation is dominated by the factions of war-lords who oppose him. And paradoxically, the US finances both sides.
All tell of the sheer danger of everyday life: violence is rife, women just don’t feel safe on the street; human rights are still non-existent and as for the promises for women’s education, they remain promises. Attempts at co-ed have been curtailed, girls schools have been burnt down and outside big cities, schools are inaccessible to girls: no female can walk about unescorted by a male relative anywhere, the sheer danger on one side, but also the tradition rife in many areas. Yours truly, however veiled and shrouded, was unable to walk anywhere on her own- in fact, in turban-dominated Quetta, she could not even go around with her friend Zorah from RAWA, having to be chaperoned a male escort-cum-bodyguard…
So, until there is a legal constitution which forces families to send their girls to school, all those projects about building Western-style schools or anything else, for that matter in Afghanistan had better be rethought in terms of the local reality.“Education may be free in Afghanistan today, but so many people can’t afford to send their kids to school” says Homera. In Asia child labour just remains an essential part of family income. It’s all very well for PC moralists in the West to campaign against this practise, but the problem is the poverty and all the politics, national and international which generate it in the region.