A nation challenged: refugees; Ignoring risk, Afghan refugees rush home
When Umer Gul came home this month after 22 years as a refugee in Pakistan, his tears of joy spoke for the tide of Afghans now returning to a country where many had despaired of ever setting foot again.
Standing in the jutting wooden prow of the truck that carried his family up to this village near Jalalabad from Peshawar, the Pakistani frontier city, Mr. Gul was enraptured.
”Look at that! Such beauty!” he said, waving at fields of ripening wheat stretching to distant mountains in a haze of green and yellow. Then, just as the truck neared the end of its journey, a light rain lifted and a rainbow spread across the sky, arcing directly over this mud-walled village, where Mr. Gul’s ancestors dwelled for generations until Soviet forces invaded in December 1979.
Three months after the invasion, as Muslim guerrillas fought their first battles with Soviet troops in eastern Afghanistan, Mr. Gul took his family down to Peshawar, beginning two decades as a casual laborer, then as a shopkeeper, earning as little as 50 cents a day.
Age 38 then and 60 now, he passed all his middle years in Pakistan and feared that his only way home would be in a coffin.
Now, over much of Afghanistan, but particularly in the region from the Pakistan border to Jalalabad and Kabul, a human tide is running.
”It’s something you cannot know, the misery of living poor in a foreign country,” Mr. Gul said after he, his wife, Zar Gul, 50, and seven of their children and grandchildren clambered down from the truck 100 yards along a winding pathway from his childhood home and began unloading the beds, cooking utensils, sacks of clothes, doorframes and windows taken from their home in a settlement near Peshawar.
”All those years in Pakistan, we used to say, ‘We have nothing — we don’t even have a country,’ ” Mr. Gul said. ”But now we have a country again. Now we are home, and the years of hopelessness are behind us.”
A while later, after much of the village had turned out to welcome him, Mr. Gul sat down over a mug of green tea in a leafy village clearing, flanked by the teacher and the butcher and a milling crowd of others, and he asked for a message to be passed to the country that drove the Taliban from power five months ago, opening the way for the current flood of returning refugees: ”Tell America, ‘Thank you, thank you, you have brought us home.’ Tell America, ‘Umer Gul is their friend.’ ”
In the two months since the United Nations refugee agency began to assist repatriation, more than 300,000 Afghans have left Pakistan and migrated home. Even if the rush subsides, refugee officials believe that as many as 1.2 million could return this year from Pakistan and Iran, which also has millions of Afghan refugees.
Uncertainties abound. The flow from Iran is only just beginning, a few hundred people a day against the 15,000 who have crossed on some days from Pakistan.
And as thousands head home, other Afghans, though in much smaller numbers, still clamor to flee. At Chaman, a border town south of here, near Kandahar, thousands of Pashtuns who have fled ethnic violence in northern Afghanistan since the Taliban’s collapse are cooped up in temporary camps on the Afghan side, seeking sanctuary that Pakistan has been increasingly reluctant to grant.
Even if the rush continues, United Nations officials say, it could take three years, perhaps much longer, before most of the five million to six million refugees in neighboring countries come home. Some never will, having settled into relatively prosperous lives, particularly in Peshawar, a city that is now as much Afghan as Pakistani. Others have married into Pakistani or Iranian families; younger people born outside Afghanistan have lost the zeal to come home that burns in older Afghans.
Still, the numbers who have chosen to move already stand as a remarkable development, all the more so in light of mounting signs that Afghanistan remains deeply unstable. Just about everywhere that the country’s future is weighed, people worry about the risk of anarchy if the new government in Kabul fails to rein in warlords who now control much of the country, or if the Taliban and Al Qaeda regroup for a new guerrilla war.
But those coming home seem to be ignoring the naysayers.
Along the main road west from Peshawar, up to the frontier and on toward Jalalabad and the hinterland, a continuous stream of trucks, buses, minivans and cars passes from dawn until past dusk. Almost all are packed with refugees, sometimes as many as 30 or 40 to a truck, along with improbably stacked cargos of beds, bicycles, carpets and wood-burning stoves.
Officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are sufficiently worried about the risks of new violence that they tell those at the agency’s registration centers in Pakistan, where refugees sign up for benefits that include up to $20 in cash for individuals, $100 for families, that they go home at their own risk.
”Our message is that it is a precarious situation, that they should make their decision responsibly,” said Melita Sunjic, the agency’s chief information officer in Pakistan. ”We ask them: ‘Are you sure you want to do this? It may not be safe.’ But they say, ‘We know our villages.’ And the truth is, they know the situation much better than us.”
The flow has far exceeded the United Nations’ predictions when details of the repatriation program were announced in January. Then, the total of returnees from Pakistan for March to December was expected to be 400,000. That number seems likely to be reached by mid-May, and officials are now preparing for at least 800,000 returnees from Pakistan this year, and possibly as many as 400,000 from Iran.
Although major industrial nations have pledged $4.5 billion in development aid for Afghanistan, United Nations members have been slow to respond to an appeal for $271 million for the repatriation program.
Even this seems certain to fall far short of the costs: the cash payouts, a package of supplies that includes plastic groundsheets, 330 pounds of wheat for every family, shelter materials and tools.
”It’s a bit scary that the operation is going so well, and we still have to live from day to day,” Ruud Lubbers, the former Dutch prime minister who directs the refugee agency, said at a recent news conference in Islamabad, the Pakistan capital.
Mr. Lubbers said getting the refugees home and helping them rebuild their homes would improve the chances that Afghanistan could resist a slide back into political extremism.
Not all refugee experts would agree, because many of the refugee camps in Pakistan served as incubators for conservative, anti-Western forms of Islam.
But Mr. Lubbers said he believed that the returnees, as victims of the earlier cycles of violence in Afghan politics, would be among the first to resist efforts to stir further trouble.
Some refugee officials worry that the rush to return now may be giving an exaggerated sense of the Afghans’ eagerness to make new lives.
For one thing, there have always been thousands of families who have moved back into Afghanistan in the spring, to plant crops in their native villages and escape the heat of Pakistan in the summer, before returning to Pakistan again after the fall harvest. This year, lured by the cash payouts, some of these annual migrants could be passing themselves off as permanent returnees.
Others may be among the bogus returnees who make an industry out of collecting the payouts, then doubling back into Pakistan to start the process again. At least 70,000 would-be returnees have been rejected so far, either at the registration centers in Pakistan or at the locations in Afghanistan where the payments are made. Those seeking to make a ”revolving door” of the program, in the term used by Mr. Lubbers, are identified by United Nations workers who are themselves mostly refugees, with a sharp eye for signs of fraud.
Pakistani officials, eager to accelerate the homeward flow, have taken measures to discourage refugees from doubling back. The most punitive of these, visible at the Nasir Bagh camp in Peshawar where Mr. Gul and his family spent 15 years, are the wrecking crews that descend on a home or shop as soon as the truck carrying a departing family pulls out.
Across the border in Afghanistan, there are more harsh moments. Driving into their native country from the Khyber Pass, the refugees are plunged into a landscape scarred by all they fled: ruined buildings, the rusting hulks of Soviet tanks, the fluttering flags of rival warlords and, everywhere, men, women and children begging. Aboard the truck carrying Mr. Gul’s family and three others going home to Mastali, there were long periods of silence as the journey carried them across the Kabul River toward home.
Five of Mr. Gul’s 10 children were born in Pakistan, and all seven of his grandchildren, so the younger children were seeing their own country for the first time.
But the uneasiness appeared to lift as the daylong journey neared its end. Mr. Gul’s cousin, Shamsur Rehman, held his 18-month-old son, Jamil, over the side as Mastali approached, telling him, ”Look, my son, this is your country, this is your soil, this is your home.”
In the village, Mr. Gul and his family spent their first night in the home of his oldest brother, Saleh Gul, a 70-year-old farmer who came back from Pakistan five years ago.
The family compound, consisting of several homes inside high walls, was bombed by Soviet aircraft when Mastali was used as a base by Muslim guerrillas in the 1980’s, when three-quarters of the 20,000 people living in the district fled to Pakistan. In the days ahead, the younger Mr. Gul will set about rebuilding his part of the compound, now little but shattered walls serving as a manger for his brother’s cows.
For the work, he has the equivalent of $250 in savings from his years in Pakistan and the repatriation bonus of $100. By his own estimate, he will need at least $2,500 to complete the task, a sum far beyond anything most Afghan villagers can hope to amass. But worries about the future seemed to count for little as he paced about the ruins of his old home.
”In Pakistan, I grew old,” he said, stroking his graying beard. ”But tonight, back in my home, I feel like a young man again. I feel as though my life is beginning all over again.” Autor: John F. Burns