Valuable Carpet Trade Deserts Peshawar

A thriving industry vanishes almost overnight as refugees stream back to their homeland, taking their skills with them.

Valuable Carpet Trade Deserts Peshawar

A thriving industry vanishes almost overnight as refugees stream back to their homeland, taking their skills with them.

Only a few months ago, Pakistani officials saw the Chamkani carpet town under construction on the edge of Peshawar as a way to boost the city's lucrative Afghan carpet industry.

Today the project lies all but abandoned. Expansion has halted, the 24 companies who located there have ceased operations and the only people about are two guards watching over the deserted 200-hectare field.

Peshawar's once thriving carpet industry is disappearing along with hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees heading home after up to 22 years in Pakistan. UN officials have noted looms among the possessions piled atop trucks as thousands of carpet weavers join the exodus.

"A lot money was spent on this town and the skilled were given facilities,"

said Shams Khan, 21, a guard at Chamkani carpet town. "But the Afghans

preferred to go. Pakistan promised all sorts of help, but no one intends to

stay here."

Although Pakistan complained about the burden of hosting 3 million

Afghan refugees, blaming them for high unemployment among and rising crime rates, the impact of their sudden disappearance may be

severe. The United Nations has registered the departure of about 300,000

Afghans since its repatriation programme began on March 1.

Statistics published last year showed hand-made carpets were the leading

export of the North West Frontier Province, with a production value in the 2000-2001 fiscal year of 130 million US dollars. The carpet weavers, who are largely children earning a few cents a day for their nimble finger work, are drawn largely from Afghanistan's Turkmen, Uzbek and Tajik minorities.

Peshawar, the provincial capital, mushroomed in size following the Soviet

invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as refugees poured over the mountains into

Pakistan. Now a largely Afghan city, real estate values have plunged in the areas where refugees settled most densely as demand disappears.

The dramatic population increase in the Eighties was accompanied by a steep rise in pollution from buses and motor rickshaws. Police wear face masks in Peshawar.

But it also brought money. New shopping plazas, houses and businesses appeared. Much of the wealth, especially the sort that paid for palatial - and heavily guarded - mansions, came from drugs and money siphoned from the US-financed war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. But it also came from the new industry in hand-knotted carpets.

"These businessmen have a lot of money and accounts in our banks," said

Arbab Hamayon, an official in MCB bank in the center of the city. "If they

go, the banks won't be able to extend loans."

Kabul was the center of the Afghan carpet trade before the country descended into chaos. Even during the war against the Soviet occupation, the wholesale carpet industry in Kabul was healthy. But anarchy followed the mujahedin capture of Kabul in 1992, as rival militias devastated much of the city.

What was left of the carpet industry relocated to Peshawar, which acted as a

funnel for any Afghan production that continued. At the same time, factories opened there, staffed by the manpower sitting idle in refugee camps. A family might get 1,500 to 2,000 Pakistani rupees (25-33 dollars) for a square

meter of carpet, made of heavy wool.

But now the carpet industry migration of the early 1990s has gone into reverse. Not only are the weavers moving back, but the center of the trade is reverting to Kabul.

"Lately all our buyers have been Afghan traders taking carpets to

Afghanistan," said Abdul Ahad, a businessman in Peshawar's Khyber Bazaar, the heart of the wholesale carpet business in the city.

Traders report that they get better prices in Afghanistan, from the aid workers and other foreigners who have descended on Kabul this year in the wake of the defeat of the Taleban, than in Pakistan, where visitors are

increasingly rare.

"The skills and business in carpets will develop fast when security improves

in Afghanistan," said Ahad. "The traders in Pakistan are Afghans. This is an

Afghan skill and they brought it to Pakistan. Pakistanis were not familiar

with carpets."

The traders will have to follow the production back home. While some weaving is done in factories, such as the planned Chamkani carpet town, most is the work of individuals at home. These families are now flooding back up the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan.

Hamza Khan, who has a loom at home, is one of the few Afghan carpet

weavers who says he will not return. He has enemies in Afghanistan and knows he cannot go back. He foresees a lonely existence in Peshawar.

"There are some people who have problems and face dangers if they return."

he said. "But the carpet trade in Pakistan is finished."

Waliullah Shaheen and Samiddin are attending the IWPR journalism training course in Peshawar.

Pakistan, Afghanistan
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