Ex-refugees skeptical that Afghan election will mean change

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 17, 2009 

WOCH TANGI, Afghanistan — This valley in eastern Afghanistan could almost be in a different country for the thousands of former refugees who're struggling to rebuild their lives in it.

Woch Tangi juts off one of the country's most fertile regions, fed by no fewer than eight rivers. Only scrub thrives here, however, and the only water comes from a few wells. A lack of transportation puts jobs in Jalalabad — the capital of Nangarhar province, just eight miles away — out of reach. Some crude shops, a small school and a part-time clinic serve some 15,000 people who live in tents and dry-mud hovels built where — before the refugees arrived — only goatherds ventured by day and wolves howled at night.

Outsiders rarely visit the three settlements of Woch Tangi — Pashto for "Dry Valley" — which were constructed during the past four years by Afghans returning from refugee camps in Pakistan who were unable to reclaim their lands because of fighting or because the properties had been stolen.

Afghanistan's approaching elections Thursday have changed that, however. Every day, cars crunch up a rutted track bearing provincial council candidates and proxies for President Hamid Karzai and his rivals, who hope to harvest what's for now the valley's most precious resource: votes.

"We have spent the last 18 months here, and no Muslim has come here to see what problems we have," said Mohammad Qassim, 40, a former anti-Soviet guerrilla who spent 30 years in Pakistan and lives in several ragged tents with his wife and 12 children. "But when it comes time for elections, one candidate comes, one goes, one comes, one goes."

An estimated 4.4 million Afghans have returned to home from Pakistan and Iran since the 2001 U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban, most going to their birthplaces or swelling Kabul and other cities in search of jobs. They'd begun leaving the country during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation, and other fled the subsequent civil war among Islamic guerrilla groups.

Many of those who've returned, however — including the inhabitants of Woch Tangi — are among Afghanistan's 235,000 or so internally displaced people, some of the poorest of the poor in one of the world's poorest countries. They'll be allowed to vote wherever they've managed to settle and register.

Like millions of other Afghans, the valley's inhabitants will cast their ballots for whomever their elders decide. Few, however, think that the election — funded by foreign powers as part of the effort to defeat the Taliban and rebuild the country — will improve their lives, residents said.

"They (the candidates) just make promises. But they are only words, and they won't be acted upon," said Qassim, swatting flies as he sat in one of his tents, molding a wad of chewing tobacco. "There are many people living here, but no official has come from the city — which is a short distance away — to see if humans or animals are living here."

"Every day, they (candidates) come here and make too many promises that we don't believe," echoed Nadir Khan, 75, sitting on a rope bed in his mud-block compound. "The people who are in power now, and those who are coming, God knows we will see no benefit from them."

Nangarhar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai "came here last year and promised he would dig deep wells and build a canal to supply water that would transform this place into a garden, but he has not," the frail old man continued, shaking his gray-bearded head.

Residents proffered colorful calling cards left by the parade of visitors. Some of the decrepit stalls that sell flour, salt and other necessities sported campaign posters on their wooden walls.

Khan said he thought that the elders would direct the 9,000 registered voters in the three settlements to support Karzai despite the massive corruption and costly war that had marked his seven years in office.

"I don't see anyone more suitable than Karzai," he said.

Khan is the headman of 800 families who began building the newest settlement here nearly two years ago, arriving in rented trucks from the massive Jaloezie camp outside the Pakistani city of Peshawar. With Pakistan closing the camp, they chose to return to their homeland rather than relocate to another camp in a remote border area.

United Nations aid workers gave each returning family two plastic sheets and two sacks of wheat at a reception center, Khan said. Those who could afford to hire bulldozers to level sites on which to construct mud-block walls now get free ceiling materials and one wooden window frame and one door frame for each room.

"The (Afghan) government gave us nothing," Khan said.

At first, a tribe that uses adjacent land for grazing goats considered Khan's people interlopers, and the newcomers were told to leave. Negotiations ensued, brokered by a leading chieftain. Eventually the locals relented.

Not everyone in the valley thinks that the elections will be futile.

Ghulam Sakhi, 53, the cleric of Khan's settlement, said that the winner would have to open peace negotiations with the Taliban.

"The purpose of an election is to bring change," he said.

Still, he conceded, many people have grown tired of all the newfound attention.

"The provincial council candidates are coming every day, two or three of them," he said, "and we are fed up."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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