Big crowd seeking return to Afghanistan with thousands rushing to leave

KARACHI: Thousands of Afghans, especially those who remained attached to foreign forces, are rushing to leave Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover after a 20-year bloody conflict.

Last month’s grim scenes aired live on national and international broadcasters showing Afghans making desperate attempts to even climb aboard the wings of military planes at Kabul airport left viewers speechless.

Fearing revenge from the Taliban, hundreds of them have already crossed into northwest and southwest Pakistan, which already hosts nearly 3 million Afghan refugees in total.

But there are many who plan to return to their homeland following what they describe as the “end of foreign occupation.”

Zahir Pashtun, who was born at the Saranan refugee camp located some 90 kilometres (56 miles) from the Chaman-Spin Boldak border — one of the two key crossings between the two neighbours — is one of them.

Hailing from the Sari Pul province in northern Afghanistan, Pashtun, 33, visited his homeland only once in 1998 during the first Taliban government.

“My family had decided to return to Afghanistan, and our visit was part of that plan. However, the US invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent seizure of our family and tribal lands by the Northern Alliance people fizzled out our plans,” said Pashtun, who belongs to the Pashtun Ishaqzai tribe, which has a sizable presence in Sari Pul.

Currently serving as the caretaker of the Saranan refugee camp, Pashtun hopes the Taliban will help him reclaim the seized property.

“The mafia people have fled after the Taliban takeover, but lands are still not in our (tribe’s) possession. I have written to the Taliban to help us get back our lands and return to our homeland,” he said.

“I am waiting for their reply. If the reply is positive, our whole tribe will return to Afghanistan,” he said.

Saranan is home to 50,000 refugees from three provinces of northern Afghanistan — Sari Pul, Jawzjan, and Faryab — and the majority of them are Ishaqzai.

It is one of the 54 operational camps in Pakistan which have provided refuge for over 1 million Afghans.

There are around 2.8 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, making it the second-largest refugee population in the world after the Syrians in Turkey.

Only around half of the refugees are registered, with the rest living without documents, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan which border war-infested Afghanistan.

Sindh also hosts 500,000 refugees.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 4 million refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan since 2002, but many returned to Pakistan due to ongoing violence, unemployment and a lack of education and medical facilities.

NEWS FROM AFGHANISTA ‘ENCOURAGING’:

Mohammad Agha, who came to Pakistan from Jawzjan, northern Afghanistan, as a child during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, says news coming from the war-ravaged country are “encouraging”.

“News from Afghanistan, particularly the northern region, are encouraging. The foreign invaders and their local helpers have fled, and things are improving gradually,” Agha, donned in a dark grey shalwar kameez and sporting a traditional black turban, told Anadolu Agency.

He, nonetheless, said he would wait until things “completely” settle, mainly law and order.

“We do not have any economic issues back home. In fact, we have more opportunities there as we have our own lands to cultivate. We only want peace. If peace is fully restored, we will not wait to return to our homeland,” he added.

Echoing Agha’s views, Malik Nauroz Khan from the northern Faryab province said his family also wants to return.

“Pakistan is our second home. We are thankful to the government and people of Pakistan for hosting us for decades,” he said.

“But a refugee is a refugee. There is no alternative to your homeland if your life is safe there,” he told Anadolu Agency.

“I feel the time has come when we should return to our homeland.”

MAJORITY STILL DO NO WANT TO RETURN:

Pashtun, who also runs a non-governmental welfare organisation for refugees, acknowledged that the majority of refugees still do not want to return.

“As we have reasons to return, they have reasons to stay. Unlike our tribe, most of the refugees do not own land or businesses back home. They cannot make both ends meet even if peace is fully restored,” he said.

“But if we receive a positive response from the Taliban, our whole tribe is ready to repatriate,” he added. “And if not, then we too are here,” Pashtun said, smiling.

Haji Abdullah, a community leader at an Afghan refugee camp in the southern port city of Karachi, shared a similar view.

“A very few from here (the camp) want to return to Afghanistan at this point,” Abdullah told Anadolu Agency.

Nestled on the northern outskirts of Karachi, this run-down locality with limited access to health care and basic sanitation is home to nearly 250,000 Afghan refugees who were forced to flee their country due to a lingering conflict.

“Our return is attached with law and order, and economic conditions. If these two things improve, you will see this camp will be empty in a month,” he maintained.

Qaisar Afridi, a spokesman for the UNHCR, said that conditions are not “conducive” for repatriation.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, he said for those who are directly returning to Afghanistan without registering with the UNHCR, “at this point, it is their own and well-informed decision. Otherwise, the number of refugees approaching us for repatriation is very low.”

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