Concern that many will be left out in the cold
Winter is coming in Afghanistan, the nights are getting progressively colder and the mountain peaks are already dusted with snow. For those living in sparse accommodation, the cooler weather heralds the start of a season of bitter discomfort. A harsh winter will be detrimental to the health and well-being of many people still living in ruined buildings, mud houses, tents, or worse in this war-damaged country.
The international community is busily trying to prepare for the winter months ahead. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has 200,000 non-food-item packages in warehouses should a severe situation occur. They plan to distribute some 60,000 kits including blankets, wood stoves, plastic sheets and fuel. UNHCR states that they are funding the construction of 52,000 basic homes across Afghanistan this year, including 1,500 individual units in Kabul, as well as the emergency rehabilitation of 24 public buildings in the Afghan capital which are currently sheltering squatters. This massive project should be enough to house more than 270,000 returning refugees, identified by NGO partners as particularly in need of housing. However to date, only 13,000 shelters have been completed, while another 27,000 are under construction. The Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development has recently formed a policy task force to address winter needs and they are hurriedly preparing a plan, but people on the street are concerned that they will be left in the cold.
Large numbers of refugees are returning and there are difficulties keeping pace with the growing demand. Some 541,000 Afghans have returned to their homeland this year from places such as Pakistan and Iran, having been away for five, ten or even twenty years. The obstacles they face upon return are daunting yet families are summoning the strength to overcome these challenges in order to achieve a life of stability. A total of 1.9 million refugees have returned since the fall of the Taliban regime in October 2001, working hard to establish peaceful lives. Those without a durable solution will endure greater hardship in harsh conditions this winter, many children will miss out on school due to lack of satisfactory indoor facilities and many will not be able to access adequate health care should the need arise.
UMCOR Afghanistan has already assisted many returnees in the district of Bagram and a new return and reconstruction project is currently being implemented in Charikar but the challenges are huge. UMCOR continues to seek new ways of assisting those returning and coordinating efforts in cooperation with other international NGOs.
Text partly taken from UNHCR spokesperson Peter Kessler (press briefing on 24 October 2003, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva).