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Exodus of unemployed a boon for Taliban

Afghanistan, March 12, 2009

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Gloria Galloway

Globe and Mail
March, 2009

As rural refugees put strain on cities, Taliban build their ranks by preying on desperation.

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Mohammed Hussain grows grapes and wheat on the farm in the Panjwai district that was passed down to him from his father and grandfather. But he no longer lives there.

"We were waiting for the promised stability and security but it just didn't come," he said this week through an interpreter.

Mr. Hussain, his wife and their eight children fled to Kandahar city about a year ago. They left their home, their vineyards, their cow and their chickens.

"In the city we don't have those things," Mr. Hussain said. "But in the city there is no fighting and no bombs."

Massive numbers of people have already been forced from their villages in the fighting zones, and the numbers are going up as security continues to deteriorate.

It is a displacement that is fostering social upheaval and crime. It is straining the limited resources of a city with little food and shelter to offer. And it is creating a growing legion of young men with no land to farm and no jobs - young men who are ripe pickings for the Taliban.

The exodus from the rural areas into Kandahar "is increasing day to day due to the ongoing conflict within these districts," said Javed Amin, the operations manager for Mercy Corps, one of the few aid groups still operating in Kandahar.

"It's not clear how long they will be staying here and when the situation will get normal enough for them to return back safely to their families and their houses."

Mr. Hussain said his village of Sperwan in Panjwai district had two different governments by the time his family fled. During the day it was ruled by NATO forces. During the night it was ruled by the Taliban.

The constant warring forced nearly everyone to move to safer ground, Mr. Hussain said. Some went to the Arghandab district, north of Kandahar, where the insurgents had yet to become a dominant force. Most went to Kandahar.

But the city presents its own problems. The streets are rubble. Robbery and kidnappings are commonplace. Housing is expensive and hard to find. And there is no work.

"My young son tried every day to find a job but he can't find a job," Mr. Hussain lamented.

There are constant pressures for unemployed young men to join the army or the Taliban. Mr. Hussain said his son will not succumb to either option. Eventually, he said, he will get a job with the government, a "secure job."

But not everyone can afford to be discriminating.

"The people are jobless and they have no other option," Mr. Amin said Tuesday. "And if anyone is paying them for any reason to do anything, they will be ready. If the number of Taliban insurgents is increasing, this is the reason. Because they are being paid. [The men] must feed their families. There is no legal way to find a job and find money for their families so they have no other option."

The only way Mr. Hussain can make a living is to continue to farm the land he left behind. That means he must make regular trips back to Sperwan over roads that have been planted with mines.

Many of his former neighbours do the same commute. And many have been killed making the trip, he said. "But this is my obligation, to go there and to come back."

Ghulam Hazrat once lived in Pashmul in the Zhari district. He and his wife and his seven children moved to Kandahar 21/2 years ago.

"I couldn't stay there," he said. "There was fighting every day."

Mr. Hazrat has set up a store that sells building materials. But business is not good because there are no homes being built. There is a great need for housing in Kandahar, but few can afford to buy.

When they first arrived, Mr. Hazrat's family of nine moved in with relatives who gave them two rooms. They stayed there for four months until they could afford to rent a house.

Today, his children go to school. But he worries about their safety on the crime-ridden streets of Kandahar.

Still, Mr. Hazrat said, "the city is more secure than Pashmul. I don't hope to go back."

Said Mohammed is also a new arrival in Kandahar. Like Mr. Hussain, he came from the Panjwai.

Three years ago, the NATO forces told him to move out of the village of Zangabad where his family had their home. Mr. Mohammed, his wife and their family of nine children moved into a tent village on the eastern edge of Kandahar known as Khana. After about a year they were able to afford a rental house.

Mr. Mohammed also makes trips back to his farm, risking his life to keep his family fed.

"If I leave the vineyards, they will dry," he said.

But the violence is ever present. On Monday, there was fighting near the village and one of his relatives was killed.

Since the family moved to Kandahar, their house has been looted and most of their possessions stolen.

One day he arrived to find the Taliban had taken up residence. "They said ‘You have not made jihad, so this is your jihad. We are using your things,'" Mr. Mohammed said.

Another day it was a group of Canadian soldiers who had occupied his home.

Today, he said, the area is relatively quiet. It is also ruled by the Taliban. The NATO forces came with the promise of security, he said.

"But unfortunately insecurity has increased and they have lost the villages."

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail