By Greg Torode
KABUL, Feb 15 (Reuters) - While negotiations between Taliban insurgents and U.S. envoys fuel dreams of peace in Afghanistan, the squatter village of Pul-e Shina highlights the tough realities ahead if the country is to re-build after years of war.
In the shadows of mountains east of the capital, Kabul, families recently displaced by fighting join others who have been there for years, scratching out a living with no access to reliable supplies of water and heating fuel, or schools for their children.
Melting snow leaves ankle-deep mud across the village of Pul-e Shina, where for many the new hopes for peace are tempered by the realisation their struggles of daily life are unlikely to change for the better any time soon.
"Even if there is peace, we can't go back," said Sima Gul, a community leader who fled Taliban attacks in a neighbouring province with her husband and nine children 18 months ago.
"There is nothing left for us there, even though it was once our home. We have to improve what we have here."
Pul-e Shina, a mix of mud-walled huts and tarpaulin shelters, is home to some 3,800 people and part of a network 50-odd "informal settlements", in which an estimated 100,000 displaced people have joined Kabul's urban sprawl.
As well as lacking basic amenities, residents of such villages invariably hold no land rights or title, leaving them at the mercy of developers or government planners.
Men scavenge for scrap metal and wood, often helped by their children, while women wash clothes in nearby suburbs. Toddlers shiver as they play with stray puppies in the polluted lanes.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the largest aid groups working in Afghanistan, has over the past year started improving wells, installing latrines and helping Pul-e Shina get organised, particularly by supporting women's groups.
The group's secretary-general, Jan Egeland, said settlements like Pul-e Shina highlighted the challenge facing countries helping Afghanistan as it sits on the cusp of peace.
Aid agencies estimate that 1.5 million Afghans have been internally displaced by conflict, with U.N. figures showing 600,000 uprooted by conflict and drought in the past year alone.
Some three million Afghans have returned from camps in Pakistan and Iran since 2015, many ending up in squatter villages. Another three million remain across borders.
"I'm amazed to come to a place just outside Kabul city where some people have been here for 15 years and their children have never been offered school," Egeland said during a visit to Pul-e Shina this week.
He said Afghanistan faced a pivotal moment with the prospect of peace.
The withdrawal of foreign troops could see countries "tripping over each other to get out the door", just as the improving security means Afghanistan's humanitarian problems could be properly tackled.
PLAN FOR PEACE?
Egeland also warned about the possibility of back-sliding on the real progress that has been made.
"It is vital to stop the bloodshed but a deal between armed men cannot come at the sacrifice of the rights and needs of women, children and their communities," he said.
It would be the "ultimate hypocrisy" if the international community, having invested hugely in more than 17 years of war since 2001, could not properly address the humanitarian needs of peace, Egeland said.
Western envoys in Kabul say that despite hopes for a settlement as Taliban insurgents get down to details with U.S. negotiators, little co-ordinated effort has been made in shaping any plan for reconstruction if peace is won.
"We're still an awfully long way from that," said one senior Western diplomat.
Other envoys acknowledged the danger of "donor fatigue".
The policies of a post-deal government, particularly on women's rights, could be decisive for Western support.
In Pul-e Shina, some women huddle around a gas burner as they meet aid workers to address the settlement's problems.
Violence against women has eased as the community becomes more organised but some men still fall prey to opium, leaving them unable to work, the women say.
One woman grows animated with frustration as she explains her basic struggle to get safe water from polluted ground wells.
"After 14 years, I am still getting sick," she says, rolling up her sleeves to show scars from a recent infection.
(Reporting by Greg Torode Editing by Robert Birsel)
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