Afghan ghost towns a symbol of lost hope

Afghan ghost towns a symbol of lost hope

ALICEGHAN, Afghanistan - Aliceghan was supposed to be a haven for war-torn Afghanistan's returning refugees and a symbol of resurgence after the dark years of the Taliban.

Six years on, it has come to highlight the myriad obstacles facing development projects in the country and an exodus of residents has left it feeling like a ghost town.

Located about an hour's drive north of Kabul, the settlement was constructed on a stretch of dry, rocky land allocated by the government to house 1,100 families driven out of their homeland during more than four decades of conflict.

Opened in 2008, it was financed by the Australian government to the tune of $7.2 million, while the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) took the lead in building homes, schools, roads and water tanks.

Today, visitors are greeted by rows of abandoned homes and empty streets as most of its residents have been driven out by a lack of running water, electricity and high commuting costs to Kabul, the nearest city.

Residents also complained of "culturally inappropriate" homes which lacked outer walls for privacy, meaning women were confined to their houses as a result.

Many of those who left have returned to slums and shelters in the capital they once fled.

"In the first year, there was work, people were constructing houses," said 79-year-old Khoja Mohammad, who lived in Iran for 20 years but decided to return for what he hoped would be a better life.

"But the following year when construction of houses was completed, people found themselves unemployed, so they started to leave. And now it is like a ghost town," he added.

He said there were only about 500 families left in Aliceghan and the number was decreasing.

- A failed plan -

Mohammad is one of the 5.7 million Afghans who had fled the civil war in their country, but returned with great hopes of a better life after the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime in 2001.

He and his relatives live with another family - around 20 people in total - spread across two small houses with four rooms. He says life is hard, especially this winter, with temperatures dropping to -20 degrees Celsius.

In his home, blankets are piled up at the corner of a room that is transformed to bedroom at night. A car battery connected to a solar panel is placed on the edge of the window and used to light the room when it gets dark.

"This is our only source of electricity," Mohammad said.

The township is one of the 60 scattered settlements across the country built for the returning refugees.

But "there were some weaknesses in implementing the strategy" Islamuddin Jurat spokesman of ministry of refugees and repatriation told AFP.

"The towns were built but lack of coordination between other key ministries such as power and energy and others to provide them basic needs of life made the plan a failure," he said, adding that the government was only able to provide shelters for around 300,000 returnees.

Antonia Paradela, a UNDP official, told AFP their plan to dig wells in the area has been delayed due to land disputes between the government and residents who claim that the land where the underground water source was located belonged to them.

Barek Aub, a neighbouring township, is no better off.

Women and children line up in front of the only school in the town with jugs and wheelbarrows to fetch water from the reservoir tanks at least twice a day.

Each family is allowed only three barrels a day - enough only for cooking and drinking.

- 'We need to create jobs' -

"They had promised us running water, good life, jobs opportunities, but they did nothing for us," says Bashir Ahmad, a 45-year-old father of four who has lived in Barek Aub for the past six years.

"Ninety-five per cent of people here do not work, because the village is far from the city. Some go to Kabul city, but the money they earn can barely cover their transportation costs," Ahmed, who lost a leg during Afghan's civil war, said.

He says he fears that village youth will "join the insurgency or fall into drugs" if the situation doesn't change.

There are around 300 families living in Barek Aub and there are only two buses for both townships that shuttle between the towns and Kabul twice daily.

Abdul Wakil, member of the US based Sozo International, one of the few organisations that still help the settlements, said: "We need to create jobs. Otherwise, I do not see how people can get out."

With a presidential election due on April 5 and the future of Afghanistan after foreign troops withdraw hanging in the balance, many residents are fearful.

"We used to receive some aid especially during winter in the past, but for three years, the aid agencies have lost interest in us. And there is a big fear that if things go wrong in 2014 and foreign aid stops we will be totally forgotten," Ahmad says.

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