By Inge Colijn
During my 27 years of work for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, I lived in many countries and they all became special to me. But some places like Afghanistan mean more. I was told at our headquarters in Geneva that people from abroad working in Afghanistan would either love being in Afghanistan or hate it, and that was indeed the case. Nobody remained indifferent.
The UNHCR returned to Afghanistan in 2002 when the Taliban were overthrown. The UNHCR’s main task was to help return Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran. Over the years more than 5 million Afghans returned to their country. By the time I started working in western Afghanistan in the city of Herat, the number of returnees from Iran was dwindling because of the worsening security situation in the country.
Despite the presence of International Security Assistance Force, the situation got worse over the years. The responsibility for fighting the Taliban was placed more and more on the Afghan National Security Forces. They did not defeat the Taliban and the Taliban caused further population displacements. In order to encourage people to stay, UNHCR was assisting people who had been displaced within Afghanistan. Often they were people who moved from insecure rural areas to the towns and cities.
In Herat, we created resettlement sites for people who had returned from Iran but could not go back to their original homes. We provided support for people who had managed to find themselves a new place to live and who needed help in rebuilding their lives. My photos are of people settled in Pashtun Zarghun, a district in central Herat Province in the valley of the Hari River.
The Italian NGO, Gruppo Volontariato Civile, met with people in several hamlets in Pashtun Zarghun and developed with them a project proposal to provide them with seeds, tools, six goats each and veterinary support. As head of a UNHCR branch office, I went visited the communities that we supported.
In July 2012 I went to Pashtun Zarghun to attend a meeting with the villagers. Some of the men and boys were waiting for us outside and they took us into their community hall, where we had a discussion.
After the meeting, they showed us around in the village and introduced us to some women, children and elderly in the village. Although I was invited into several houses, most of my photos were taken outside because of the lack of light inside the Afghan homes.
In the next village, the men were also waiting for us and after another discussion, they also showed us their houses and water well and introduced us to their families.
I was struck by people’s dignity. They were proud of their way of life, though they lived under such harsh conditions. After being displaced, they had managed to build new houses and, thanks to the water from the Hari River, they could grow the food they needed. They were displaced together as a community, and that gave them more resilience and independence.
How orderly and organised most houses were inside! Two months after this first visit, the Italian NGO was ready to distribute goats to the families in Pashtun Zarghun.
The way the logistics were managed was impressive. The goats were sent off the truck into a big open space. All beneficiaries received a registration card and they waited their turn to register. I asked one by one the men to come forward to sign the book, receive their 6 goats and they took them home.
It was a great occasion for the people and there was a positive vibe in the air, which the children also also felt. This project in Pashtun Zarghun will always stay in my mind. These beautiful and welcoming Afghan people had accepted their fate with pride and they showed such fortitude and spirit under difficult circumstances.