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Afghan Refugess Return Home

April 16, 2002

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ A quarter-million Afghan refugees have returned home in the past seven weeks, the United Nations announced Tuesday. Millions more remain in camps in Pakistan and Iran, too afraid to return home.

Yusuf Hassan, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said 241,000 people had returned from camps in Pakistan, 5,000 from Iran and 4,000 from Tajikistan.

``The repatriation program appears to be in full swing,″ he said.

Bringing home some 4 million refugees from neighboring countries has been a top priority for U.N. officials and for Afghanistan’s interim government, which took office in December and will rule until June, when a grand council appoints a new, transitional government.

Included in those who began returning to Afghanistan on Tuesday were around 100 people who had been living in Islamabad, including many teachers, several engineers and an economist, according to the United Nations. Many quit their jobs in Pakistan so that they could return to Kabul and help their country rebuild.

But after 23 years of war in Afghanistan, many refugees remain afraid to return home.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, is in Afghanistan talking with officials about ways to minimize the fears of those wanting to come home.

``Security is indispensable to repatriation, but more importantly, successful reintegration would lead to stability,″ Lubbers told interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai during a meeting Monday.

However, returning refugees are having trouble finding places to live, especially in the capital, Kabul, where there is a severe housing crisis. In the countryside, many refugees are arriving to find their houses burned or bombed.

Hassan said 40 percent of those returning are moving into urban centers. Kabul alone has seen 80,000 refugees return, and there is little place for them to live.

``The majority of people who left this country left as rural people, but in Pakistan they became urbanized,″ Hassan said. ``There is a major demographic shift going on.″

At the Pul-i-Charkhi center east of Kabul, refugees poured into the city aboard elaborately painted trucks piled high with people and belongings. Each family received cash, food and tents from aid officials before continuing on their way.

``We heard there is peace in our country, so we came back,″ said Gul Padshah, a 25-year-old shopkeeper who has no shop and no money.

He fled his home in Bagram four years ago during heavy fighting, and said he has heard his house and shop were both burned down. He was returning to live at a relative’s house while he rebuilds his own.

``I have only what the United Nations gave me,″ he said. ``I have to start from scratch.″

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