Racing against the setting sun to wind up the day’s labour, Shukour takes a few steps back and surveys his construction site. As the dust from the drilling settles back on the 50 square metres of rock that will become the foundations of his new house in Kabul, he stops work and talks about the home he fled as an eight-year-old.
“Our is as beautiful as India’s ,” he says, framed against a rash of grey matchbox huts vying for very available inch before the hillside falls steeply away. “It was God’s own valley until the reign of fire.”
Shukour’s home province of Panjshir – deep in the Hindu Kush mountains – bore the brunt of vicious fighting between the in the 1980s. More than six million Afghans fled the war; Sukhour’s family was among the , many of them unregistered refugees.
The announced the formal end of the conflict in 1988, but millions of displaced Afghans did not return. The US invasion of 2001 created new waves of displacement, and chronic outflows continued over years, creating the largest refugee crisis in the world (until it was ).
Like Shukour and his family, many are now being sent back to . Pakistan declared its neighbour a “safe country for returns” last year and began mass deportations. They have recently started again after a three month pause, while a fence is being built to protect Pakistan from future flows. More refugees are returning from Iran and countries in Europe.
Despite the into the “stabilisation” of Afghanistan, the latest figures on displacement paint an alarming picture. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees counted 1.8 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country at the end of 2016 – a threefold increase since 2012. According to a recent report by the , more than 94% of IDPs surveyed said they had fled direct violence or persecution.
Many long-term refugees are at risk of becoming IDPs within their home country, with even less protection than they had before, says Nassim Majidi, lead author of the NRC report. The returnees are at risk of being displaced yet again, Majidi adds, becoming “even more vulnerable due to the lack of a support system or community”.
‘We found an alternative’
Now 42, Shukour and his three brothers returned last year from to an Afghanistan they did not know. The familiar haunts of their childhoods had been destroyed by relentless bombing raids, and their home community had been drained of life as friends, family and neighbours left the destruction behind.
Like most others, Shukour’s family gravitated towards the most viable choice: Kabul. In the absence of government support or sufficient humanitarian protection, Shukour is one of an estimated 100,000 refugees setting up home in the capital.
With space at a premium in the heart of Kabul, new arrivals are moving upwards. Shukour decided to build a house along an unpaved road in the area of Kabul called Ziarat-e-Sakhi, a that lies at the bottom of the hill.
“Our home in Panjshir was destroyed, so we are building a new one,” Shukour explains. The way he sees it, he is replacing the home he lost with a new one here in an informal settlement. “What we had is no longer ours, so we found an alternative instead of being a burden on the government.”
His new home is likely to be deemed informal, unplanned or illegal under national land laws, and vulnerable to both evictions and natural disasters, but Shukour shrugs off the ad hoc nature of the construction boom. “These are just formalities,” he says, undaunted. If the government wants to seize his new property, he hopes he will be compensated.
According to South African architect and urban planner Jolyon Leslie – who has worked and lived in Afghanistan since the 1990s and witnessed several waves of conflict and reconstruction – this sort of building activity has overwhelmed the capital in terms of space and infrastructure, and made the integration of newcomers impossible.
The capital has mushroomed in size since the turn of the millennium, from , according to the latest estimates, with the total set to reach eight million by 2025. Add to this the , and you have what experts such as Majidi refer to as a powderkeg, with poverty, greater risks of natural disasters, disease and social instability.
The World Bank estimates that at least 80% of Kabul’s current population is in some kind of informal settlement. By the end of the century, the Afghan capital is projected to be home to about 50 million people, according to the .
The Afghan ministry for urban development differentiates between informal settlements that are occupied by landless squatters on habitable public land and those built on privately owned land.
Most of the new construction in Kabul falls under the first category: informal settlements by landless squatters like Shukour. Some are located inside the under the outdated 1978 masterplan and others outside, while the residents are a mixture of returnees, IDPs migrants and locals.
“Many migrants do self-identify, so when asked if they are IDPs they usually say ‘yes’, because they believe they might receive more support,” says Leslie. As a result, keeping track of the number of houses being built by returnees and IDPs in Kabul is difficult, with most information about urban planning anecdotal.
Next door to Shukour, a family lives in a 100-year-old home that has been passed down for generations but lacks land deeds. Another family who moved in nearby and built a home in the mid-2000s managed to secure a construction permit. All three families live in an unplanned part of the city.
The World Bank has repeatedly pointed out to the city of the Kabul, especially in reducing poverty and homelessness. Absorbing these homes into the planned parts of the city would help residents like Shukour access basic services – from water and power to education for his children and nephews.
Decades of neglect
Unlike the optimistic vigour of Shukour and his neighbours, the inhabitants of the Charahi Qambar camp in western Kabul appear despondent. Nicknamed Helmandi due to the origin of a majority of its inhabitants, Charahi Qambar is one of about in Kabul that house 65,000 registered returnees and IDPs.
While some families have arrived over the past few months, others have lived here for decades. Malaise and neglect line the faces of even the youngest residents.
Not much has changed for us other than aid disappearing over time. The last time we received rations was years ago
Some of the older generation of displaced people have still not been absorbed into the city. They remain cordoned off from stable employment, while humanitarian support for them has run out. Many still live in the original mud dwellings that were meant as temporary refuge – and remain without basic sanitation. Unsurprisingly, the dire conditions for long-term residents mean many newcomers steer clear of these official sites.
“[NGOs] come and go and none of it yields positive results,” one of the residents says, as he hauls buckets of water from the only hand-pump in the vicinity. Water scarcity is a problem throughout the city, with a finding that Kabul’s existing underground supplies are only enough for a population of five million. The supply can be sporadic, so people fill as much as they can when it is available.
The informal elder of the camp says he has seen little improvement to his life in the past two decades. “Not much has changed for us other than aid disappearing over time. The last time we received rations was years ago.”
Kabul – the fifth fastest growing city in the world – is bursting at the seams
Organisations such as the NRC try to combine for those fleeing renewed conflict with sustainable solutions for those who remain displaced, but William Carter, head of its Afghanistan programme, admits that balancing the two has been challenging with dwindling resources and a constantly evolving situation.
“On the whole, little is being done to prevent displaced populations who are unable to go back to their area of origin from circling down this vicious downward spiral of long-term displacement,” Carter says. “Our main shelter priority in Afghanistan is to ensure that we start off with solutions that are sufficient for families to survive for a long time.”
Revisiting Shukour and his home a few months later, I find the foundations levelled and walls being raised. The family are mixing cement, sand and water into a strong mortar.
Similar construction sites are peppered along the road, evolving at different paces. Some may have to wait months or years for a staircase, creating disjointed storeys, while others might hold off on installing doors – but regardless of the “formalities”, as Shukour mockingly calls the legal process, the homes have already become part of the cityscape.
“Our home will stand strong,” he declares.