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Displaced Afghans too afraid to go home

NATO's declaration of victory in Panjwai not enough to assure villagers they're safe

Graeme Smith, Globe & Mail, 28 Sept 06


KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- Less than 10 per cent of civilians who fled a massive battle in Panjwai district earlier this month have returned to their homes, the Canadian military says, as villagers continue to fear a resumption of fighting between foreign troops and insurgents.


Ten days have passed since Canadian commanders declared Operation Medusa a success, after killing or routing hundreds of anti-government fighters from a swath of farmland dangerously close to the city of Kandahar.


Since then, North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces have co-operated with the local government and international agencies to launch an unprecedented rebuilding operation, trying to swing local support in their favour by reviving the same villages that crumbled under a rain of air strikes and artillery.


Villagers who fled say they're tempted by the news they hear on the radio, declaring that people who return to Panjwai will be eligible for donations of food aid, household goods and cash for remaking their homes. But they're also hearing rumours that gangs of Taliban fighters remain in the district, in some cases occupying whole villages.


"We are afraid we will get bombed if we go home, because the soldiers won't know whether we are Taliban or not," said Lal Mohammed, 60, a Panjwai farmer, sitting in the rubble-strewn yard of a friend's home in western Kandahar. His family have pitched tents on a barren hillside on the outskirts of the city and are making preparations to stay the winter.


"The fighting will happen again," Mr. Mohammed said.


(In an independent incident, Canadian soldiers came under attack yesterday when a suicide bomber hit part of a convoy returning from a supply mission west of Kandahar. There were no Canadian casualties, but one Afghan civilian was hurt.)


Soldiers from Canada's Provincial Reconstruction Team have noticed the lack of residents in Panjwai as they prepare the area for an influx of aid, PRT commander Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Hetherington said. He estimated that fewer than 10 per cent of those displaced have gone home.


"Our guys are out there, saying, 'Where is everybody?' " Col. Hetherington said.


General James Jones, NATO's supreme allied commander, said recently that 20,000 people have been displaced from Panjwai. That number may be low; the World Food Program is now distributing 30-day supplies of food to 5,000 families in a region where families usually consist of six or seven people. The local government is surveying 18,000 households to determine their needs.


"Now we want to reach out to those 20,000 and help them come back into their homes, provide them with food, clothing and shelter, if need be, and to get them back to a better life than they had before," Gen. Jones said.


Kandahar's provincial government is leading the reconstruction work, Col. Hetherington said, relying on advice from local elders to ensure that the flood of foreign assistance doesn't fuel tribal jealousies.


"We want to make sure it's equitable and all-inclusive because of the tribal issues," the PRT commander said.


While some of the displaced civilians can afford to spend months in the city, many others are too poor to stay.


Lal Jan Aka, 75, left his farm in the Pashmul area and stayed at a relative's city home during the worst of the fighting. But the 10 members of his family were uncomfortable living in just one room, and they needed to tend their fields and livestock. He now lives in a camp north of Highway 1, squatting in low-walled settlements recently abandoned by Kuchi nomads.


He walks several kilometres south every morning to reach his empty home.


"North of the highway is safe for me," he said. "South, we worry about Taliban."

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