Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

No Way Back for Nasir Bagh Refugees

The authorities in Islamabad are making sure that the former residents of a Peshawar refugee camp never return.
By IWPR Afghanistan

The tens of thousands of Afghans streaming out of Nasir Bagh - one of the oldest refugee camps in Pakistan - cannot return even if life in their homeland becomes impossible once more. The authorities are knocking down their houses as soon as they are empty to ensure that they don't come back.

The one-time emergency settlement, that turned into a thriving community of more than 100,000 people on the edge of Peshawar, is now largely empty - many of its former residents part of the wave of around half a million people who have returned to Afghanistan in recent months.

Islamabad has been seeking the removal of the Nasir Bagh inhabitants for a decade. It set a deadline of June 30, 2001 for the closure of the camp, which it wants to turn into a government housing project. Until now, the target date has repeatedly been postponed, largely because of the turmoil in Afghanistan.

When the refugees leave - many taking advantage of the United Nations assisted repatriation programme - they bring with them everything of value, including the poles that used to hold up the roofs of their mud houses. The Pakistanis then move in with bulldozers to ensure all trace of the buildings disappear.

While most of the refugees are leaving willingly, some are being coerced into doing so.

"We were told we had to leave this camp as soon as possible and it was our choice whether to go to Afghanistan or to another camp," said a mother of four who has lived in Nasir Bagh for 18 years.

"With so many families who lived around us going, the situation is not very good now. We are very scared during the night and sometimes stay awake until the morning. We are just waiting for clearance by the UN to leave."

Nooria Amiri, a teacher at Primary School 101, in the nearby refugee camp of Kacha Garrai, has seen a steady dwindling of students from Nasir Bagh. "We had lots of kids from Nasir Bagh but many have gone home to Afghanistan. For some it was their own choice but others were forced to go," she said.

The United Nations is issuing up to 100 dollars to every refugee family to cover transport costs and also provides some food to see them through the coming months, until they find work or can grow a crop.

"From around 19,000 families that were in Nasir Bagh, only 2,000 are left and I think the camp will be totally cleared in a short time," said Ayoub Khawarin, a spokesman for the UN Refugee agency UNHCR.

The camp was considered one of the most stable in the area. Many of the first wave of refugees who arrived in Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion were relatively well educated and Nasir Bagh became a fully functioning Afghan town, with its own schools, shops and clinics.

"I had a clinic in Nasir Bagh that was running very well," said Doctor Abdullah Popalzai, who has since pulled out of the area.

The authorities' decision to start bulldozing the camp in April has left those who remain in little doubt about its fate.

Khan Wahidi, a journalism instructor at Afghan University in Peshawar, told IWPR that officials had visited him last month and warned him that the order to vacate - which was sent a year ago - would now be enforced.

"Most of this camp has been destroyed," said Wahidi, who has lived there for six years. "I sent my family to Jalalabad in Afghanistan in April and now I am just waiting for the end of the school year so I can join them."

Breshna Popalzai, Nooria Ashaq and Palwasha Hakim are Afghan University journalism students who participated in an IWPR training course.