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KAREN YAP LIH HUEY

The Hindu (India)
November 4, 2007

Despite a tough life in Pakistan, few Afghan refugees want to return to their home country.

For Altaf Khan, Pakistan has given meaning to his less than ordinary life — a safe haven from famine, drought and war in his home country Afghanistan, and a new beginning as a husband and father.

His three-bedroom apartment in a nondescript Afghan neighbourhood in Peshawar city boasts of plush Afghan carpets. The television has the latest Bollywood music while his Afghan wife Freshta, heavy from pregnancy, prepares Afghan delicacies in the kitchen. The washing machine is humming; the pressure cooker is rattling; the water filter is cranking up. The car needs cleaning, his wife reminds him.

Such comfort is a far cry from his years in refugee camps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border: clean-running water was rare, food was scarce, personal space was unheard of, and winter was near freezing death.

Fleeing from instability

The instability of the Afghan government led by Mohammed Najimullah in 1989 and the threat of an impending civil war drove Altaf’s family and other Afghans to flee to neighbouring Pakistan. Altaf was then nine and he has in Pakistan ever since. A photograph of his father, a general in Mohammed Zahir Shah’s kingdom, perches proudly on the living room wall.

“I go to Afghanistan still … every month but it’s for work. I don’t want to go back permanently, not until things have improved,” Altaf said. Their first child is due next month. “People go hungry there. People steal, snatch, kill. You can be shot anytime for no reason. Life is hard in Afghanistan.”

An estimated 1.3 million Afghans are in Pakistan. According to Peshawar police statistics, there are 250,000 illegal Afghans in the country. At present, there are 15 Afghan refugee camps in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border. Pakistan urged Afghan refugees to return when the Hamid Karzai government was installed in Afghanistan in December 2001.

Efforts by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to repatriate voluntary Afghans have slowed down with the return of the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. The Afghan Government and the international community have been blamed for the failure to provide jobs and adequate quality of living for ordinary people.

The Pakistani Government has started registering Afghans since last year, as a follow-up to its census that tried to regulate the Afghan population in the country since they fled the Soviet invasion in 1979. Afghans enumerated in the census can register to receive registration cards, valid for three years, which recognise them as Afghan citizens temporarily living in Pakistan. Over 63 per cent of those registered so far are in NWFP, 17 per cent in Balochistan, 12 per cent in Punjab, seven per cent in Sindh and less than one per cent in Azad Kashmir.

“We have a good life in Pakistan and we will continue to stay here. I’m strong with Freshta,” Altaf smiles, tiredly. He has been working 16 hours last night, and for almost the same hours every night of the week. The new addition means expenses will certainly increase. With his partner, Altaf trades foreign currency during the day. He also provides transport services — he takes Pakistanis, Afghans and goods to Afghanistan for a fee.

Other entrepreneurial Afghan refugees set up shops selling carpets, handicrafts, eatables, among other things. Some get involved in the infamous black trade: smuggling weapons, drugs and people.

The Pakistani Government has no control over these tribal areas. The Pashtuns are very proud of the popular perception that they are fierce warriors. Almost all possess guns — AK47s and Kalashnikovs are popular. Licenses are not required. Bullets can be made-to-order or imported.

Outside refugee camps

Other Afghan refugees are not so fortunate. Those not in refugee camps live on handouts from sympathetic passers-by or from begging. Ali Khan, his wife Peekai and four children live in a low mud-brick house in a vacant-plot-cum-garbage-dump next to towering houses for four years in Peshawar. The family came to Pakistan 18 years ago, moving from a camp in Lahore to Peshawar. Ali suffers from spinal problems after a wall fell on him while he was working. His children do not go to school — the eldest daughter, 14, helps the mother with chores and goes out begging.

Asked about their plans to return to Afghanistan, Peekai was realistic. “I leave it to God. It’s God’s will.” And continues: “You see this home,” she points excitedly to the unattractive mud-brick house, “we built it with our own hands. My eldest daughter and myself … we build and repair the house for the last four years.” She said it with so much confidence, and strength that it’s not hard to imagine that the family might survive their trip to Afghanistan, if they decide to embark on the journey.

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Written by afghandevnews

November 5, 2007 at 4:05 pm

Posted in Refugees

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