KABUL, Afghanistan – Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again, but Assadullah Aman is about to try, returning to a place his children barely remember and his grandchildren have never seen.
"The people of Afghanistan, we missed our country," he said while riding on a bus carrying him to the ravaged country his heart never left. "There is a big difference now. The Taliban is gone and there is peace."
After living in Pakistan for nine years, the Annon family is returning to Afghanistan with little more than a bag of wheat, some cash and a plastic tarp – but plenty of hope
They are among the roughly 5 million people – one-third of Afghanistan's population – who live in exile. Most went to Pakistan and Iran during the Soviet invasion; others left when warlords tore the country apart.
"I left Afghanistan, spent two years in Iran, 14 years in Pakistan," Aman said.
Aman would not comment on the possibility of more conflict with the warlords who replaced the Taliban.
"I don't know, I don't want to touch with politics," he said, laughing.
But it's the politics bringing these Afghans home. They are confident that interim president Hamid Karzai will make progress and that American forces will keep the peace.
"America, we all say thank you to America to bring us peace in our country, Afghanistan," Aman said.
The UN had been prepared repatriation camps for 400,000 refugees, but they are being overwhelmed by an estimated 1.2 million people this year. Families at the camps are warned about landmines and receive medicine and meager, but essential, supplies.
But the supplies aren’t important to Assadullah’s son Fareed Aman, who wants to accompany his father home for the first time in many years. Fareed was 14 when his father left. They ran a stationary store in Islamabad, but felt mistreated in Pakistan.
"Right now, we are happy to come to our home," he said.
Millions of Afghans fled their country after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. By the end of 2000, roughly 2 million Afghans were living in Pakistan and another 1.5 million in Iran, according to the United Nations. Even after the Soviets suffered a humiliating defeat and left Afghanistan amid international pressure in 1988, the country was still in conflict. The Soviet-installed government did not collapse until 1992, only to be replaced by rival factions that fought over power and land. A major military push by the increasingly-strong Taliban in the mid-1990s displaced even more Afghans.
The refugee situations was exacerbated in early 2000, when Afghanistan was struck by its most severe drought in 30 years. Tens of thousands of Afghans were forced to leave home in search for food. Afghans fled to the borders yet again at the beginning of the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorist network.
However, this hasn't stopped the Amans, though. Carrying almost everything they own, with their modest home empty but intact, the Amans are hopeful for the present. The future of Afghanistan is built one family at a time.