RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Afghanistan saw some four million of its refugees flood back into the country after the Taliban government fell in 2001. Some are still suffering. Others are still returning. And that prompted best-selling novelist Khaled Hosseini to lend his literary celebrity to the cause.
This month, the author of " The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" returned to Afghanistan for the first time since those novels came out. As a goodwill envoy for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Hosseini traveled to Kabul and the countryside around it.
Mr. KHALED HOSSEINI (Author): Village after village where I went, I met with people who had essentially no homes, who had to live in mud shelters or even in tents exposed to the environment. I met families who dug holes in the ground and spent entire winters cooped up as a family in sub-freezing temperature in these holes.
People have very little access to clean water. More than half of Afghanistan doesn't have potable water. A vast majority of people complain that they can't work and when there are jobs, that pay less than $1 a day. So these conditions for people are very, very difficult and that's why one of my main messages coming back is that we just cannot afford to give up on these people.
MONTAGNE: You know, when I have been in Afghanistan several times since 2002, I did meet a fair number of people, though, who are happy to be back and kind of managing to make do. Did you also see those people, some of whom had been helped actually by the international aid that has come in?
Mr. HOSSEINI: Yeah. I mean, there are people who are doing reasonably well. But for the most people, reintegrating into society has been a real struggle. It's particularly heartbreaking to see the people who come back from Iran and Pakistan because, you know, they had reasonably settled lives in those countries; they had homes, they had jobs; and for them to come back to Afghanistan is tantamount to culture shock.
MONTAGNE: When you meet Afghans now, sometimes is there tension between exiles and the people who remained behind? Or even refugees who come back and the people who remained behind?
Mr. HOSSEINI: I think that is a significant issue in Afghanistan. I have never felt it. I have always been received with open arms and people have been very gracious. And that, you know, that really speaks to the character and the trait of the Afghan people, who are constitutionally pleasant and kind people.
One in a number that really stands out for me is that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission did a survey of I think 11,000 people, and 78 percent of Afghans said that they were still hopeful about their future. This, considering the fact that there's a raging insurgency, that there's opium production, that there is joblessness and homelessness and abject poverty, to me that underlines the importance of us realizing that, look, Afghan people are willing and ready to improve their lives. The process of rebuilding this country is a long-term and complex process and let's stay committed to that.
MONTAGNE: I would just like to ask you one last question about being a writer.
Mr. HOSSEINI: Yes.
MONTAGNE: When we spoke to you last spring when "A Thousand Splendid Suns" first came out - your last novel - you said Afghanistan had become a distant place for you at this point and that writing your novels brings you closer to home. Was there a moment on this trip where the real place, Afghanistan, brought you back to your childhood?
Mr. HOSSEINI: You know, absolutely. There was - it's good to get out of Kabul and actually get out in the countryside where quote-unquote "the real Afghanistan" is. I had forgotten how strikingly beautiful Afghanistan is, driving north on the Shamali, seeing these lush farm fields, these rice fields, these pistachio trees and valleys and rivers. And people associate Afghanistan with just dust and mountains and deserts; you know, that's all you see on television. But in fact it's a strikingly beautiful country.
MONTAGNE: Khaled Hosseini is just back from his first visit to Afghanistan since he wrote "The Kite Runner." His family fled when the Soviets invaded. He is now a goodwill envoy for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
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