Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight
August 14, 2002

White, in Dashti Archi District of Kunduz Province in July, where he interviewed Afghanis who have come home.

In harm's way
Brian White ’00 helps Afghan refugees who have returned home

By Kathryn Federici Greenwood

Many Afghans who fled their country are heading home. And Brian White ’00, who is based in Peshawar, Pakistan, with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), assists both refugees and internally displaced Afghans who have returned to their villages. White works on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border, by identifying the challenges returnees face, including lack of assistance and human rights abuses, determining if conditions are right for repopulation, and getting that information back to those still in camps.

Afghans are both hopeful and wary of going back to their villages, says White, who had been stationed in Congo before arriving in Pakistan last April. In June and July, White visited some 20 or so rural villages in Afghanistan’s Balkh, Kunduz, and Ghor provinces to "figure out what's really going on." He interviewed people who have returned and gathered information from other nongovernmental organizations.

"Every village is different," says White, who majored in politics at Princeton. "Some find that their villages, situated on former frontlines, are finally safe and secure from attacks by soldiers, but still threatened by landmines. In other areas, fighting continues and some families find themselves at the mercy of local warlords and other ethnic groups. In some areas, rains have brought opportunity and hope to farmers. In others, drought conditions continue."

In fact, "most of the people who had to flee their homes in the last three years in Afghanistan weren't fleeing fighting. They were fleeing famine and drought." Some villagers "have to walk four or five hours just to get to a place where they can get drinking water."

As a member of IRC's eight-person protection unit, White monitors the human rights of returning refugees and collects information on abuses. When he visited a village in northern Afghanistan, for example, one family interviewed said that armed soldiers came to their house demanding blankets and food. White funnels that information to field staffers, who try to work with local elders and commanders.

When traveling inside Afghanistan, he stays away from areas of fighting and never sets out alone or after dark. "We're not trying to be cowboys. We're just trying to get to the areas where people are," says White, who journeys without armed guards because IRC staff members don't want Afghanis to associate them with a military operation.
Some Afghans have returned home only to leave again because life wasn't sustainable, says White, whose current post lasts one year. "Basic necessities, like food, water, and shelter, are still in short supply in many of the communities. … Security problems … are a common feature in urban and rural areas."

"The international community, led by the U.S., mobilized every available resource to remove the Taliban from power and drive Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan," says White. "Now the same level of international commitment is necessary to help the people of Afghanistan get back on their feet again and rebuild their country after three years of drought and famine and 20 years of civil war."

You can reach Kathryn at federici@princeton.edu