Returning to the ruins of Dehwarian

Afghanistan, May 8, 2002

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    Nisa Latif, left, and two of her daughters sit in their home in Dehwarian. The family recently returned home after being displaced by fighting for 18 months. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps Photo:

As I approached Dehwairan there was a crowd of men gathered on a hillside. They were exhuming mass graves left behind from the Taliban, hoping to find family members that were missing after the war. Ghosts passed by riding on donkeys. They were the women, wearing the white burkas prevalent in northern Afghanistan, billowing silently in the wind.

Dehwairan, located in Khanabad district of Kundoz province, saw some of the worst and most protracted fighting in Afghanistan. It was on the frontline of the civil war for over 18 months. Everywhere I looked were eerie markers of the suffering. Landmines still littered the fields. Tanks and armored vehicles lay gutted by the roads. It was in this area and other nearby districts that Mercy Corps has distributed over 4000 tons of wheat donated by the World Food Program (WFP). The European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) provided support for the transportation and overall operations to distribute food to 27,280 families in dire need.

As we drove up to the village, I wondered where would one begin—how you would begin to rebuild your life here, where all that remained were piles of rubble, mass graves and sorrow. I wandered through the remains of the village. Adul Latif invited me into his small adobe home that he had been rebuilding. His wife, Nisa, offered me tea. I declined, knowing they were probably offering me their last cup. She offered again. I declined again. And again she offered and I declined. It is an Afghan custom to offer at least three times before accepting no as an answer. Finally she relented.

We were seated on the dirt floor of their one-room home. I could count all their possession on one hand: a couple floor mats, two blankets, a pillow, a cooking pot, a teakettle. Outside were two water jugs. These few items sustain Adul’s family of six.

Adul and his family recently returned to their village after one and a half years spent as refugees, internally displaced people, moving from place to place in search of food, shelter and momentary peace. They fled their village on foot with just a donkey carrying their few possessions and their youngest child who is 5. They walked for over three days before reaching a safe haven in Dashti-Qala where they were able to live with relatives. Then, fighting broke out there and again they were forced to flee, this time to a camp in the area.

The Latif family returned to Dehwairan, again making the long journey by foot. But their load was lighter. They had sold almost of all of their possessions while living as refugees just to survive. They had to sell the donkey, but Adul stated without flinching, "It really wasn't a problem without the donkey - we no longer had anything left for it to carry."

After a year and-a-half absence, Adul hardly recognized his village upon their return. “I grew up here, in a house that stood where this one-room has been rebuilt. We had fertile lands. There were children laughing in the streets and playing. Now, it is silent here. There is no laughter. The lands are barren -the only thing that seems to survive in the fields is the landmines."

But, despite the bleak conditions, Adul has hopes and plans for the future. Adul has borrowed money from relatives and has had assistance from friends and family in rebuilding his home. Next year, he plans to start to farm again, as soon as the landmines are cleared from his fields and he has saved enough money to buy an animal to help plow the land. The WFP wheat distribution from Mercy Corps and ECHO has allowed him to begin to rebuild his life in Dehwairan and to start to think about the future.