Photo: Flikr US Embassy Kabul
|Families are slowly returning to Marjah in Helmand Province|
KABUL, 29 March 2010 (IRIN) – Over a month since pro-government Afghan and foreign forces retook Nad Ali District, including the town of Marjah, in the southern province of Helmand from Taliban insurgents, thousands of the displaced are yet to return to their homes, according to aid agencies.
At the height of the anti-Taliban military operation in Marjah (12-24 February) over 4,000 families reportedly fled their homes; about 3,800 were registered by the authorities in Helmand’s capital, Lashkargah, and 300 were reported in neighbouring Nimruz Province.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which monitors the situation through the provincial department of refugees, said from 25 February to 15 March 1,296 families returned to Marjah from Lashkargah, Nawa District in Helmand Province, and Nirmruz Province.
“The initial pace of return of displaced persons to Marjah has substantially slowed down,” Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman in Kabul, told IRIN, adding that only seven families returned to Marjah 15-22 March.
However, Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand, said most of the displaced had returned to Marjah. “Only about 500 [displaced] families are still in Lashkargah,” Ahmadi told IRIN on 29 March.
Sporadic clashes between Taliban fighters and pro-government forces in Nad Ali District are continuing, officials said.
The Taliban still wield extensive influence in the area and are intimidating people not to support the government, according to local people.
“Everyone knows that foreign forces will leave soon and the Taliban will come back, so no one wants to make mistakes and attract the Taliban’s animosity,” said a well-connected local journalist who preferred anonymity.
However, Helmand spokesman Ahmadi gave assurances that this time things would be different: “People are rightly concerned about their future because in the past the government and foreign forces used to take an area and leave it for the enemy to return, but this time… we have long-term plans for development and governance in Marjah.”
Numerous improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other munitions in the area have also hindered repatriation to Marjah, UNHCR said.
IEDs kill and maim dozens of civilians every month across the country, according to rights groups.
“Some of the IDPs state they have rented houses in Lashkargah for three to four months and will wait until the situation is more stable [for them to return],” said UNHCR’s Farhad.
“The situation of the remaining displaced families is very bad and they urgently need assistance,” Ghulam Faroq Noorzai, head of Helmand’s refugee affairs department, told IRIN adding that up to 2,500 displaced families from Marjah were still living in Lashkargah.
He said food, health care and drinking water were the top needs and called on UN agencies to help.
Farhad said assessments are under way to gauge needs and vulnerability among the remaining IDPs.
UN agencies do not have a presence in Helmand Province due to insecurity but implement aid projects through local government and non-government partners.