- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

PULI SOFIAN, Afghanistan After seven years in exile, Ghan Mir couldn't wait to get back to his home in the lush Shomali Valley, set among olive trees and vineyards.
But when Mr. Mir unloaded his wife and seven children from a bus that drove him from Pakistan at the end of July, he couldn't believe his eyes: His sprawling walled compound is now a bombed-out shell standing in a pale dusty desert in the middle of a minefield.
"Look at my hair," said Mr. Mir, who puts his age between 55 and 60. "It has gone white when I saw it. I don't know what to do. How to live? How to feed my family?"
In what seems like a humanitarian disaster in the making, 1.2 million Afghan refugees streamed back to their homes from Pakistan and other neighboring countries after Taliban rule collapsed in November.
It is the fastest voluntary refugee influx in the history of mankind, U.N. officials say. The speed and scope caught international relief agencies by surprise.
Original U.N. estimates were that 800,000 Afghans of 4 million living abroad would return this year. Based on those estimates, donors contributed $205 million to feed and supply the refugees with basics to rebuild their homes, but that was $66 million short of what the agencies estimated they would need.
With revised estimates saying 2 million refugees are likely to return this year, U.N. officials are fearing the worst.
"I have to say, if the international community does not get its act together soonest, we are on a threshold of a major humanitarian crisis," said Ragnmila Ek, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
"If further donor support is not forthcoming, this could turn into a very difficult situation," Mrs. Ek said. "The incredible influx of the refugees is stretching everybody beyond their resources. It's a very dramatic situation."
The new Afghan government in Kabul cannot help, either. It has barely enough money to pay salaries for state employees until August, since international donors have anted up only a fraction of the $1.8 billion they pledged after the Taliban collapsed.
With so many refugees returning and lacking jobs or food for them, "there could be serious social problems that could destabilize the government," said Yusuf Nuristani, a minister in President Hamid Karzai's government. "It could plunge Afghanistan back to war and misery."
Much of Afghanistan is still suffering from 23 years of wars, drought, famine and disease. The country has been turned into ruins with little food, basic commodities or job prospects.
The situation in Puli Sofian, a village about 25 miles north of Kabul, is typical of what most returning refugees face. Seven years ago, the area was lush with olive trees, orchards and vineyards.
However, there has been no rain here for four years. And what nature didn't destroy, war did.
The Shomali plain was on the front line between the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance, which was backed by the Americans and swept into Kabul in November after the Islamic militia collapsed under intense U.S. bombing.
The villagers, mostly Tajiks, defended their homes from a Taliban offensive in 1996. When the villages fell a year later, the Taliban retaliated by cutting down thousands of trees, burning homes, destroying the vineyards and planting thousands of land mines so no one would dare return.
But, Mr. Mir explained, "A family without a home is nothing, so we decided to come."
Now, he and his oldest son, Mirkhan, 21, are constructing a straw and mud hut with dried branches acting as a roof. It is a two-hour walk to the first well for drinking water, which is also used to make mud for construction.
There is no electricity, furniture or beds. The whole family sleeps on a dirt floor covered with plastic sheeting. They drink tea, make bread from three sacks of wheat they received from the UNHCR and once a day share a bowl of potato soup.
"Our children cannot play outside because of mines," Mr. Mir said, pointing to red rocks indicating a minefield next to tracks on the hard dust of a field littered with 100-millimeter tank shells.
Cholera and malaria are on the rise, and with harsh cold expected in a few months when winter starts, Mr. Mir fears the worst.
"What life is this, if this can be called a life?" he asked.
"If we could only make it through the winter, I think we would stay here. If not, we'll have to pack and leave again. If we are alive by then."

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