QUETTA, Pakistan -- With a thriving carpet business, an eight-bedroom home and an easy laugh, Atta Muhammad doesn't fit the profile of a beleaguered Afghan refugee. In fact he scoffs at the idea.
He fled Afghanistan's warfare nearly two decades ago, and, having sunk deep roots in neighboring Pakistan, it's unlikely he'll ever go back. He and the 50 relatives in his sprawling home are flourishing, but their success points to a problem Afghanistan may never overcome.
How to rebuild a shattered country when virtually all the wealthy, educated and skilled people have left, leaving behind a nation of war widows, children who have never opened a schoolbook and young men whose only job has been soldiering?
"We are Afghans in our heart, we will always be Afghans, and we will die as Afghans," said Muhammad, 48, sipping green tea and sitting atop a pile of carpets in one of his two stores in Pakistan that sell Oriental rugs.
But when he looks beyond the war and the latest wave of refugees, he says the damage is so great that he won't live to see the country restored.
"Nothing is left. We don't know when it will be rebuilt. Maybe our children will see it, but we never will," said Muhammad, who shares his business and home with his four brothers and their families.
Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest countries, has always had a diaspora. Afghans were emigrating in search of a better life long before a pro-Soviet coup d'etat in 1978 set off the country's present cycle of violence.
The exodus accelerated when the Soviet Union invaded the following year, and roughly 8 million of the country's 21 million people have since fled. Some 4 million remain abroad, most of them in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, according to the United Nations.
"Afghanistan's brain drain has been quite comprehensive," said Yusuf Hassan, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan.
Most educated Afghans were long gone by the time the Taliban rose to power in 1996, though their harsh brand of Islamic rule has chased off those who remained. "How can the educated people stay in a country that bans books, music, television, and keeps women from working and girls from going to school?" Hassan said.
Many in the Afghanistan diaspora have prospered abroad, setting up restaurants, groceries and import-export businesses. They send money to relatives who have remained behind.
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