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Tajikistan: Marooned Refugees Repatriated

Dushanbe relieved as Afghan refugees holed up on the Tajik border start returning home.
By Vladimir Davlatov

Up to 12,000 refugees languishing on islands on the Tajik border are preparing to return to their homes in northern Afghanistan, confident that a measure of stability has returned to the area following the overthrow of the Taleban.


The departure of the refugees from the islands in the flood plain of the Pyandj river - where they fled in September 2000 to escape fighting between the Northern Alliance and the Taleban - will come as a relief to Tajikistan, which had feared they might cross the border and enter the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, illegally.


"After the return of the Afghan refugees, we'll have a lot less headaches. From the beginning it just wasn't right that such a large number of people should live in the border zone. It could only cause concern, not only for us but also for the Tajik leadership," Pyotr Gordienko, a representative of the Russian border guards on the Tajik-Afghan frontier, told IWPR.


The refugees, who'd set up temporary camps on the Pyandj islands, found it hard to get food and other provisions, living largely on humanitarian aid. They had little shelter from the winter frosts and illness and disease plagued the island, killing many children and old people.


As the social and political situation in Afghanistan improved following the overthrow of the Taleban, representatives of Afghan authorities, the Russian border forces and international organisations met at the beginning of April and decided to begin repatriating the refugees.


"We're glad that the refugees are going home. It's evidence of the normalisation of the social and political situation in our country and also of the fact that the measures being taken by our government are giving positive results," said Muhammad Salim Sayeb, who has been temporarily authorised to oversee Afghan affairs in Tajikistan.


He told IWPR that early this year some refugees returned to their homes to establish whether it was safe to go back. Around 800 left the islands on April 8 accompanied by Afghan border forces and headed for their homes. The remainder will leave the islands during the coming month. Gordienko said the repatriation process was entirely voluntary.


The presence of the refugees on the Tajik-Afghan frontier had been a constant headache for Russian border guards and the Tajik authorities over the last few years of conflict. The latter feared that if fighting spread to the islands, the refugees would rush into Tajikistan.


The Taleban had regularly fired on the island camps in the hope of forcing their wretched inhabitants into Tajikistan, a country hated by the student militia for supporting the Northern Alliance and providing a conduit through which Russian military equipment was delivered to the rebels.


"We can now confidently say that the Lord has had mercy on us and the Afghan refugees no longer pose such threats," said Gordienko.


One of the main reasons why Dushanbe was reluctant to offer the refugees shelter was that it feared religious emissaries, drugs couriers and armed supporters of extremist organisations might try to slip into the country with them.


Its refusal to take in the refugees provoked repeated criticism from international organisations.


Dushanbe still has another problem, however. There are 5,000-6,000 displaced Afghans living inside Tajikistan itself. Most entered illegally, having fled when the Taleban came to power.


They do not present any political or military threat, but they are a serious economic problem for the country, which suffered almost five years of civil war and can barely provide for its own population. Few of these Afghans are expected to return, although Salim Sayeb said some have gone back to Afghanistan to assess the situation.


Vladimir Davlatov is an IWPR contributor


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