Refugees Under No Illusion About Repatriation

Afghan refugees acknowledge the problems they face when they return home may be more acute than those they've had to endure in exile.

Refugees Under No Illusion About Repatriation

Afghan refugees acknowledge the problems they face when they return home may be more acute than those they've had to endure in exile.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

In the 20 years since Afghan refugees began arriving in Pakistan, the site of the camp at Muzafar Koat has been transformed from an empty, arid plain, stuck between the mountainous terrain, into a thriving community.

But it could soon become a desert again. When Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, returned after 29 years in exile on April 18, the residents of this camp celebrated, seeing it as a sign that they would soon be leaving the place where they have lived for two decades.

"Congratulations, do you know that Zahir Shah has come to Afghanistan and now the fighting in Afghanistan will be over and we'll all go there without any fear," an old man shouted confidently in the bazaar.

Despite continuing instability in Afghanistan, with almost daily reports of shootings and potential plots against the Kabul interim administration headed by Hamid Karzai, the estimated three million Afghan refugees inside Pakistan are beginning to stream home.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, had hoped for the return of 400,000 refugees this year, but about 300,000 have already poured over the border since the organisation's repatriation programme began officially on March 1.

So far, only 15 families from the Muzafar Koat camp, 250 km from Peshawar along the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, have formally asked UNHCR to help them return. The agency is giving families up to 100 US dollars to cover transportation costs and providing rations for their first weeks back in Afghanistan.

While few have actually left, everyone in the camp seems to be talking about returning, preparing mentally to make the trek back up the dirt track that heads over the mountainous border just six kilometres away.

Certainly there are problems facing them in Afghanistan. Their houses are destroyed, their fields have been abandoned and there are no schools in many areas. There is also a shortage of water and health services are almost non-existent.

"We're going to have to deal with real problems when we go back - one of the most worrying is the continued presence of armed groups," said a resident of the camp, pointing to the international community's reluctance to get involved in policing any of the country outside Kabul. "If the peacekeepers are sent all over the country we will go as soon as possible."

However, with or without foreign protection, there is optimism among almost all the refugees that Afghanistan's situation is improving and finally they could have an opportunity to head home. That is likely to mean the end of their entire town, a place they never expected to spend so many years.

The camp was set up in 1980 as Afghan refugees streamed over the border in the wake of the Soviet invasion in the late Seventies. It now holds just over ten thousand families - more than 60,000 people by the conservative yardstick of six people per family.

The residents represent the clans of Afghanistan's Paktia province - the Zazi, Mangal, Sabir, Babeker Khail, Khosti and Matan - and have built a peaceful, normal life. Food rations for the camp stopped about 10 years ago and the refugees now support themselves.

As well as the pull of Afghanistan, there are pressures in Pakistan pushing them to go back to their former homes. Residents complain that Pakistani officials, who have objected to the prolonged presence of refugees, will not let Afghans repair damage to their mud-walled houses without the payment of bribes.

They say the quality of education has gone down; and that the only hospital here is primitive, with a single doctor. Patients have to endure a six-hour drive to the provincial capital, Peshawar, for anything serious.

"The Pakistan government closed down our clinics because they didn't like the fact that Afghan, rather than Pakistani, doctors were treating patients, " said Dr Abdul Rahim Gharwal, who has been in the camp for seven years and once had a clinic.

Over the years, people here have had to put up with many hardships - and there's no doubt that when they return they may face even greater problems. But the general feeling in the camp is that it's better to struggle in your own country than a foreign one.

Gul Bahar Gharwal is an Afghan journalist based in Peshawar.

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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