Pakistanis seek refuge from violence in Afghanistan
By Jon Hemming
JAJI, Afghanistan, Jan 28 (Reuters) – On an icy clearing surrounded by forested peaks, Afghan officials struggled to keep order as they handed out food and blankets to dozens of tribesmen who fled Pakistan to escape sectarian violence.
Nearly 7,000 people have abandoned their homes in Pakistan’s Kurram tribal region as fighting erupted between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims during the Muslim mourning month of Moharram, an annual flashpoint for violence between the two sects.
“We feel safe here, but the situation in Pakistan is bad and getting worse everyday,” said Nadir Khan, a Sunni Muslim, who was among the throng jostling outside a stone warehouse near Jaji, a border town in Afghanistan’s southern Paktia province.
Bearded men with dark, leathery faces and teenaged boys with ear-mufflers shivered and rubbed their hands, trying not to slip on the ice or trip over the razor wire outside the storehouse as they waited for handouts of oil and flour wrapped in blankets.
Khan said he lost two of his family in the bloodshed, and their cars and homes were burnt, while there was no food available because all the shops in Parachinar, Kurram’s main town, were closed.
“I won’t take my family back until it’s safe there,” Khan said, adding that he was staying with relatives on the Afghan side of the border.
The exodus from Kurram is a sign of the growing insecurity in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
According to Afghan government figures, collated by the U.S. military, 6,725 people had crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan to escape the violence.
Around 75 percent of them were Afghans who had been living in Pakistan for some time. Most of those waiting for aid in the town of Jaji said they were Pakistani nationals.
In the past, refugees crossed the border going the other way, to escape from violence in Afghanistan.
Some four million Afghans escaped civil war in the 1980s and ’90s to seek refuge in neighbouring Pakistan, though at least half have gone back.
“I am happy that we can help the Pakistanis,” said Azad Khan, the district chief of Jaji, himself a former refugee in Pakistan.
“The people of Afghanistan are showing their hospitality. If they have two rooms, they will give up one for the people from Pakistan.”
Zaheer-ul-Islam, a senior government administrator in Kurram, said families had fled places where clashes had been intense, but denied any had gone to Afghanistan.
Kurram has a history of sectarian rivalry. It is the only one of Pakistan’s seven tribal regions where Shi’ites form a majority.
Jaji has also seen its share of violence with Taliban fighters slipping across from Pakistan to attack U.S. soldiers manning a small outpost there several times last year.
Since October it has been quiet, due in part to the heavy winter snowfall that makes movement difficult.
U.S. military officials expect Taliban fighters to become active again once the snows melt, and couldn’t say whether the rising levels of Taliban-related violence in Pakistan would lead to less or more trouble on the Afghan side of the frontier. (Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haidar in Islamabad; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Jerry Norton)