Decade After 9/11, Afghans Languish in Pakistan
By Qasim Nauman and Rebecca Conway for Reuters
When Ghulum Nabi’s father heard U.S.-backed troops toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban after the September 11, 2001, attacks, he rushed to their family home in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan to spread the news.
Perhaps, one day they could all return to a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan supported by a Western superpower.
After 10 years of U.S.-led efforts to pacify one of the world’s most turbulent countries, Afghan refugees in Pakistan have little hope for stability in their homeland.
“I grew up here and Pakistan is my country. When my father pushes me to go back to visit, I end up having a fight with him. I’m never going to live there. I want to get Pakistani nationality. This is my home,” said Nabi, 22, who runs a crockery shop.
“It doesn’t matter if it is America or anyone else trying to watch over Afghanistan. I will still be looking around to see if anyone is pointing a gun at me.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai would welcome a return of the millions of Afghans living in Pakistan.
It would be a vote of confidence in his administration, which faces many problems, from widespread allegations of state corruption, to a resilient Taliban.
SOVIET INVASION TRIGGERED LIFE OF UNCERTAINTY
Many of the refugees are skilled labourers who could boost reconstruction and help revive a weak economy if they return. But it’s unlikely to happen.
Most of the refugees in Pakistan arrived after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The conflict that followed consumed their homeland. After the mujahideen warriors defeated the Russians, warlords turned on each other and tore Afghanistan apart.
Many refugees fear a repeat of that chaos as a U.S. troop withdrawal looms.
Some would like to go home but feel they can’t. Others regard Pakistan as home despite its many disadvantages. Without proper Pakistani identification cards, Afghans can’t open bank accounts or buy or lease property.
Many are openly mistreated by Pakistanis who have little fear of being held to account.
On August 14, the anniversary of Pakistan’s independence, Saeed Anwar’s landlord showed up with three men armed with AK-47 assault rifles at his clothing shop at a busy bazaar in the city of Haripur, home to 80,000 Afghan refugees who live in camps.
“They threw around my merchandise and said I need to pay them a 300,000 Pakistani rupees ($3,450) advance on the rent. I had already paid the rent,” said Anwar, wearing traditional, loose Pakistani trousers.
“I went to the police to register a case. But when they see a dispute between a Pakistani and an Afghan, they automatically assume the Afghan has done something wrong.”
Still, many Afghans believe its wiser, and safer, to just accept the frequent humiliation than return to a homeland still shattered, despite a long U.S.-led military campaign against militancy and billions of dollars in Western aid.
Afghans — from elders who vividly remember the first Soviet gunship helicopters in Afghanistan, to teenagers who have only visited a few times — work for Pakistanis as welders or carpenters and tailors in Haripur and other cities.
Most of them prefer to run their own small businesses, from food carts to car dealerships. It’s the only sense of independence they have in the camps which consist of small cement and mud housing units near a reservoir.
The elders have set up a jirga, or tribal gathering, to settle internal disputes, as is done in much of Afghanistan. Cricket games are the only form of entertainment and leisure activity for most youths.
Two years ago Pakistan agreed to let displaced Afghans stay until the end of 2012, after a resurgence of militant violence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border hindered repatriation.
Still, people like Sherullah, whose nine children were born in Pakistan, feel vulnerable. What if Pakistan asks them to leave one day?
“There is a lot of confusion. If there’s one thing I want, it’s for this confusion to go away, for us to know if we will be staying or not,” said Sherullah, who was cutting women’s clothing in his tailor shop.
“There are many people living here that can afford to build a proper house but don’t want to. They think ‘what if next year we are told to leave?’. So they continue to live in mud houses.”
Aside from 1.7 million officially registered Afghans in Pakistan, there are an additional 800,000 with no documentation.
According to the United Nations, Pakistan is home to the world’s largest refugee population, mostly Afghans, who strain the country’s troubled economy.
Pakistan would like to repatriate them.
There are, however, few incentives for refugees to head back to Afghanistan. So life in camps may drag on for many years.
Even though the U.S. disengagement is gradual, it brings back painful memories of what was widely seen as American abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet exit in 1989. Warlords soon took over and bloodshed returned.
Haji Aslam, 65, an elder in one of the camps, has seen conflict in Afghanistan over the last 30 years — from the battlefields where he fought the Soviets to what he sees today on his television screen. He is betting on the Taliban to prevail once the Americans leave.
“Even if just 10 Taliban show up, the Afghan government will flee Kabul,” said Aslam, a man with a white beard wearing a traditional flat Afghan cap. “In Pakistan, I am at peace. I know my children are safe.”