Thursday, February 18, 2010

Afghanistan: Mine-filled desert springs to life

Source: United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) - Just about 25 kilometres from Afghanistan's eastern regional hub of Jalalabad, Sheikh Misri was known as a dreary and rough desert of barren land littered with landmines and unexploded ordnances until December 2005. View more photos

Now, just in a matter of four years, one can see a stark difference with a somewhat thriving life there, thanks to relentless and synchronized humanitarian efforts of United Nations humanitarian agencies, the Government of Afghanistan, other international aid agencies and individual donors.

Fast forward to 2010, now, you can get down from a bus that regularly runs on a newly constructed dirt road from the nearest highway, in the middle of settlements.

If you look like a stranger, children will gather to have a glimpse of you and the local women shy away. More often than not, you will hear the noise of construction works nearby. If you turn around, you can see a long array of tents that serves as the clinic, established by the International Medical Corps (IMC), for nearly 20,000 people.

Welcome to Sheikh Misri New Township (SMNT)!

SMNT is one of the five pilot locations being developed as a land allocation site for landless returnees who spent years outside their country as refugees, and for internally displaced persons (IDPs), in accordance with Presidential Decree Number 104.

Since December 2005, United Nations-supported Mine Action Coordination Centre for Afghanistan (MACCA) has cleared 1,257,937 square metres of landmine-hazard area, destroyed 69 anti-vehicles and anti-personnel mines and 1,816 unexploded ordnance (UXOs).

On top of that, says Mullah Jan who looks after mine action programme in eastern Afghanistan, 17,909 people in the town have received mine-risk education.

Then came humanitarian agencies like IMC, United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), UN World Food Programme (WFP), UN Agency for Human Settlements (UN-HABITAT), World Health Organisation (WHO), International Rescue Committee (IRC), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Nazaneen Jaber Khel Education and Health Centre (NEHC) and Bayat Foundation, among others, joining hands to support the Government in developing a township for the returnees.

Now, this otherwise lifeless desert has been a home to about 2,500 families living in nearly 1,100 shelters constructed by UNHCR, IRC and UN-HABITAT, among others.

As the UN launches today the 2010 Humanitarian Action Plan budgeted at US$ 870.5 million, Sheikh Misri can be remembered as a living example of how a desert can become a thriving life if different humanitarian efforts are put together.

USAID has completed the improvement of the 15-kilometre road linking the township to the nearest highway. Within the township area, the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation has completed the paving and grading of 13.5 kilometres of road, and the construction of 100 culverts.

On a recent visit to the township area, a United Nations team found that the former refugees or IDPs were happy about what has been done so far and demanded more.

"We are happy about all that has been done here," said Abdul Rahim, the head of the local Shura or elders, recalling that there was "nothing when we came here."

Mr Rahim said 1,000 more shelters, more vocational training schemes, more roads, drainages and a water reservoir are needed, just to name a few.

When Mr Rahim was making the list of demands for the main township area, another member of the Shura, Malek Nader who has his shelter a little far from there, intervened and said his area was more neglected.

"Everything has been done in this side, but nothing has been done in our area," said Mr Nader, furious.

In his bid to calm down Mr Nader, the director of the Department of Refugees and Repatriation (DoRR), Abdul Rahman Shams, said everything can't be achieved overnight.

"Step-by-step everything will be there. Remember, nothing was here before," said Mr Shams.

"There is already a plan in place for the other side. But it takes time to get it implemented," he added.

Just a few minutes' drive from the main township area to the foothill, one can see extraordinary development works underway, not to mention the spectacular view of the settlements down below.

An impressive number of schoolchildren – all clad in dark blue – were playing under the scorching sun, about 20 metres away from their 13-room school building constructed by UNICEF.

Soon, all of them were inside their respective classrooms – some on carpeted floor.

Inside the classroom, one can find an example of how the various UN agencies are working together: UNICEF has provided necessary stationery for the children and WFP provides biscuits everyday. And, just a few metres away, UN-HABITAT is constructing a new school building.

Maulavi Gul Rashid, the school headmaster of Sheikh Misri Primary School, said there will be about 1,000 students after construction of the new building, a significant rise from 208 boys now.

There are two other schools in the township, one of them for girls constructed by NEHC, and the other for boys by UN-HABITAT. All school-going girls get biscuits as well as cooking oil under WFP's school-feeding programme.

Just a few metres from the school, UN-HABITAT has just completed construction of a 20-bed hospital, with support from the European Union. Once it opens, it will serve the medical needs of all the Sheikh Misri dwellers.

Back in the township area, a number of livelihood programmes are underway.

UNHCR has supported cow raising, animal feed production and tractor projects, among others. In 2009, the refugee agency also supported 100 households with a kitchen- garden project, 30 others with poultry farming, and additional 36 families with supplementary cow-feeding and refresher training.

IRC and the German aid agency GTZ are also involved in providing vocational training, with WFP providing food to all the trainees. In addition, WFP has supported starting home-based nurseries for a number of families.

"Everything is good except water supply," said Bahadur, 70, who lives along with his three sons in a UNHCR-built shelter.

By Tilak Pokharel, UNAMA

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