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UMCOR Winterization Program in Afghanistan

Winter arrived early this year in the mountainous regions of the Afghan border with Pakistan. In November on the plains of Paktya, the nighttime temperature frequently dropped below zero degrees Celsius. The early snow in the surrounding mountains was an ominous sign of what would be the coldest winter in over fifteen years.

The harsh winter burdened the entire population of the province, but seemed extra hard on returning IDP's (Internally Displaced Persons) and Refugees. To bring relief to the most vulnerable families in Paktya province, UMCOR cooperated with UNHCR to bring winter assistance to 400 families in different districts in the province. The cooperation with UNHCR was later extended to another 314 families in the new Banuzai settlement just outside Gardez, the capital of Paktya. The assistance consisted of stoves, blankets, plastic sheets, cash contribution for wood (1000 Afs = $ 25) soap, lanterns and health, sewing and layette kits. The soap, kits and blankets distributed were received earlier in 2004 as part of a $296,737 shipment of supplies from UMCOR Sager Brown. The distribution in the districts was completed by December 20, 2004. In the new settlement, it took place between December 21 and 23, 2004.

Gul Bibi (not her real name), a 33-year-old widow with two sons and two daughters, is one of the landless returnees who settled in the Dara valley, known among the returnees as the Banuzai settlement. She fled in 2001 to Pakistan, already a widow, and spent three years in the Ashgaroo refugee camp, living with her family on only WFP rations. She returned early 2004 to Paktya, but could not return to her district Ahmad Khel since she had no land to settle on.

As one of the more fortunate landless returnees, she was given the opportunity to purchase a small plot of land just outside Gardez, to be paid in 5½ installments of 4,000 Afs (one installment due every six months). The purchase made her eligible for the UNHCR shelter project, which otherwise would have stayed beyond her reach, due to the landownership criteria in shelter projects. Her son, the only provider of the family, who works for a Turkish road construction company with a monthly income of 3000 Afs, spent his evenings and weekends finishing the house. Due to some difficulties in getting the needed materials to complete the structure, the shelter of Gul Bibi and those of 313 other families in the Banuzai settlement could not be completed before winter arrived.

The stove, blankets and plastic sheet from the UMCOR winter assistance project provided Gul Bibi and her family with the initial protection from the cold. With the plastic sheet, she was able to cover the roofless part of the shelter, and she used the blankets and stove for her family to stay warm at night. During the day she and her son, helped by neighbors, were able to finish the shelter by late January.

Since the shelter construction took place in the cold and wet season, the mud plaster on the floor, walls and roof dries very slowly. The dripping of water in her house and the cold rising from the floor negatively affected the health of Gul Bibi and her four children, the youngest only a year old. The winter assistance helped her to overcome the weeks of harsh weather, during which she struggled to take care of her family and finish the construction of her home. Yet for Gul Bibi the struggle for a better life is still ongoing.