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Ruud Lubbers on Afghan Refugees

May 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Since the U.S. and its allies drove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, more than half a million Afghan refugees have returned to their devastated nation.

MAN (Translated): Yes, we are returning of our own free will. We have difficulties here. Whatever it may be, Afghanistan is our country, and it is getting better.

RAY SUAREZ: The influx has been larger and faster than many had expected. Two decades of war and Soviet occupation, a three-year drought, and five years of Taliban rule drove an estimated five to six million Afghans from their homeland.

That exodus accelerated briefly last fall, when some 200,000 Afghans tried to escape U.S. and coalition air strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaida. Most of the refugees have fled to neighboring nations: Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. Currently, Afghans make up one of the world’s largest refugee populations: An estimated 3.6 million.

The recent Afghan returnees are coming home to a country with only with a fragile interim government, a devastated infrastructure, and few jobs. Vast areas of Afghanistan are ruled by warlords and factional fighting continues. The rapid return of refugees has made an already severe food shortage worse. Relief officials estimate that nine million Afghans need some 275,000 tons of food aid until the July harvest.

In March, the United Nations’ refugee agency launched its program to help returning Afghan refugees by providing money, food, and medical supplies. Last month, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, met with Hamid Karzai and tribal warlords to negotiate the refugees safe return.

RAY SUAREZ: Joining me now is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers. He is a former Dutch prime minister.

Mr. Lubbers, welcome back to the program.

RUUD LUBBERS: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Give us an idea of how many people your agency is trying to resettle in Afghanistan right now.

RUUD LUBBERS: For this year, we plan to bring home one and a quarter million people. This is 400,000 people from both Pakistan and Iran, and many internally displaced persons, let’s say another 400,000, and then 50,000 from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. And right now, at this very moment that we’re talking with each other, we have passed already the 500,000 limit of refugees, and another 150,000 internally displaced persons, those who stayed in the country during the time of violence and the air strikes and all that. So we are about 50 percent of our target, and I am pretty confident that we’ll reach the one and a quarter million in the course of this year.

Critical point, however, is the funding of that whole operation. We are spending $23, $24 million a month now. This is transport, this is food for a couple of months, and we give seeds to the farmers, and we provide them with shelter. This is repairing their own houses with building materials, or construct simple new houses. And finally, we have to drill for water because in many of the villages there is not enough water. And when there are substantial quantities of people coming home, we have to provide water as well.

RAY SUAREZ: When you say there’s problems with the funding, are people coming back to the country faster than you had planned, or are donors not living up to the commitments they had made?

RUUD LUBBERS: It goes somewhat faster than we had thought, that speaks for itself. We are speaking May, and we are talking about fall for a target, so indeed, it goes somewhat faster. It’s certainly no cheaper than we thought because what you actually need in the villages depends of course of the situation there, and certainly at least the same amount.

But the main thing is that the donors are a bit let’s say sluggish up until now, we received nevertheless about 60 percent from what we needed. So we are still a little bit ahead with money, the time for what we are spending. But you will understand if you have only for six weeks in cash, it’s a somewhat scary business to facilitate people to go home. So I am really going around in counties, calling on governments to be more forthcoming after the nice pledges, which were made in Tokyo.

RAY SUAREZ: There have been many stories in the press here in the United States about how difficult it’s been to deliver aid in various parts of Afghanistan: Aid trucks have been hijacked, food has been diverted, given to warlords, fighters in the field; ending up being sold instead of given to needy families. Are you more able to get the aid where it’s needed when you need to get it there?

RUUD LUBBERS: I think we are more able, although we are not perfect.

In the first place, what we have practiced and are practicing in Afghanistan, is to be very cautious in handling money. We know money always ends up in the wrong pockets. So there you get corruption and so on.

Secondly, the assistance we give is very related to the individuals we have resisted. I mean, it’s their food. Now, you might think that a warlord goes to that individual person. The risk is there, where you go for the masses, when we have the building materials. Up until now it functions well. Again, the same story, no money, but materials to assist people. You hear rarely incidents at this very moment. So knock on wood, there are stories from the past but at this moment I would say there’s reason for confidence.

RAY SUAREZ: When people come to you from Iran, from Pakistan, what kind of shape are they in? Are they people coming back with possessions, or are they really just with the clothes on their back and perhaps a few suitcases or bags?

RUUD LUBBERS: In general, they have a little bit more. They are, of course, not the rich persons. But many of them are for quite a long time already, especially those who come from Pakistan these days, we see that they have luggage with them. They are certainly not rich people, but they have more than their clothes alone, and that’s also credible because they live there for years in Pakistan. Some had part-time jobs even, and now they are going home.

Sometimes they are really miserable. Those who respect in camps like Jalousi in the past, of course are very poor, and sometimes have even medical problems. So before they enter the country, we do a medical checkup of them, that’s point one. Then we give them some instructions how to live with a country with many mines, land mines. We give them also information about possibilities to become once again a farmer.

So this is not only a transport question, but it’s registering the people, seeing where they go, informing them, and assisting them where needed.

RAY SUAREZ: Are these people that you’re going to have to keep track of, take care of, for many years to come?

RUUD LUBBERS: Not many years, but we are charged by the U.N. and the interim administration. Hamid Karzai urges us not only to bring the people home, but to assist them in becoming once again productive citizens in that society. That means that we stay some time with them, but to give you an impression that we are talking maybe a year or something like that, then… and that villages of course not everybody returns at the same moment.

This might become a program of, let’s say, two years, maybe even more, but I guess two years with the speeds, which we are doing it now. We do not expect all Afghan to go back to Afghanistan. We simply don’t know, however, how many will go. There’s one and a quarter million, which I mentioned to you, for this year. It is certainly going to reach maybe somewhat more. One and a quarter million would be about one-third, I think, of what we expect to go home. If you look to the total numbers, it’s even more. It’s almost unbelievable how many Afghans had to flee their country in the past.

RAY SUAREZ: Should we take this as a sign of their confidence in the future of their country? Or in some cases are they being pushed back over the border by governments that have found them a burden; that they would like them to go home?

RUUD LUBBERS: I think now at this very moment we have to see that, in the first place, it has confidence in the wrong country, Afghanistan, and we need the will to go home. Many of them are fully aware that it will be difficult in the beginning. And even where you come in this village back, and it is tough in the beginning, you have to reconstruct your own house, or repair your heavily-damaged house. You have to give a hand in repairing of the irrigation system, or build a small road from your farm to your feeder road there — or to assist even in drilling water.

But if after a couple of weeks you wake up one morning and you see it’s going to function and you are there backing your country, it’s a fantastic experience, of course, after so many years in a strange country of which many of them in refugee camps with not much perspective in life. And especially the kids, the children when they go there and they can live in freedom, imagine young Afghan girls have a future once again — on schools, and can do things in life. So this is really a new Afghanistan.

I think at this moment it’s really a vote of confidence. Even more, while we know that the time of harassment is not long over, and the violence, and there are some even incidents today. So this is a mass of vote of confidence in the wrong country, it’s a vote of confidence in Chairman Karzai. And I might add to that, it’s trusting each year not to let them down then; to assist them in the beginning. And we really hope that the international community will make it possible for us to do that job there. This is important for the people. It’s also important for the political stability of Afghanistan.

Finally, we need an Afghanistan who is not a center of violence and a source of terrorism, but an Afghanistan which finds its own way in peace and as a democratic country.

RAY SUAREZ: Thank you very much for joining us.

RUUD LUBBERS: Thank you, sir.