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Afghan Refugees Return Home to Uncertain Future

By Mandy Clark
02 June 2008

Pakistan recently began closing its largest camp for Afghan refugees out of fear that remnants of the Taliban had been using it as a hideout. Now, more than 70,000 Afghans are being uprooted once more. Many are making the dangerous journey back to their homeland. From war widows and teenagers to young families, they are on the move; hoping to rebuild their lives in a country many have not seen for decades. Mandy Clark recently visited the Afghan-Pakistan border, where she met with several refugees and followed them back to the Afghan capital, Kabul.

In trucks laden with everything they own, they are making their way over rugged mountain passes to return home to a land some of them barely know.

These are among the millions of Afghans who fled their homeland over the past several decades of war and tyranny.

North of here - over the Kyber Pass and some 30 kilometers inside Pakistan lies Jalozai, a sprawling refugee camp that Pakistan now wants shut down, saying it poses a security threat, because of possible infiltration by remnants of the Taliban.

In Jalozai, people are bundling up all they own, leaving not even bricks and building materials behind.

For the past 27 years, it has been home for Nuru La.

"I don't have much memories of Afghanistan, I know once that we moved out from Afghanistan to Pakistan, we had to become refugees," said Nuru La.

But now, Nuru La and his family have been told it's time to go back.

"They say you are refugees and you have to move back but there is no place to go. I hope we find a better place," said Nuru La.

Jalozai is more like a giant village than a make-shift camp. It has existed for decades and houses tens of thousands of Afghan refugees. Many fled here after the Soviet invasion in 1979.

United Nations officials say this mass exodus is part of the biggest repatriation of refugees in history. And, Pakistan wants to see an additional 2.4 million Afghans return home by the end of 2009.

Salvatore Lombardo from the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says Islamabad needs to be patient.

"An important aspect is to persuade our Pakistani friends, who are tired of having hosted this population for a very long time, to be patient and give more time to the people to make a decision to return," said Lombardo. "We are worried that if the numbers increase this country [Afghanistan] will face a major humanitarian crisis."

U.N. officials fear that the Afghan government, even with the help of aid agencies, cannot absorb too many returnees too quickly.

According to Human Rights Watch, some seven million Afghan refugees have fled the conflicts over the past three decades. Many are living in neighboring countries, 1.5 million of them in Iran and more than two million in Pakistan.

Even the road home for refugees is fraught with danger. The roads are laden with landmines and travelers are preyed upon by bandits. And local Afghan warlords have repeatedly closed the main road in from Pakistan.

For those who make it through, Kabul's U.N. repatriation center is likely their main destination.

Here, the returnees are taught about the dangers of land mines, they get basic medical care and $100 to help restart their lives.

For the Afghan government, returning refugees are important to help rebuild the country. Senior advisor Abdul Qadar Zazie, in the ministry of refugees, says repatriation is vital, but he readily acknowledges that returnees face many obstacles.

"They face lots of problem, there is a security problem," he said. "The most problem for the returning refugees is the job problem. They are jobless and they cannot find a job here."

But for most returning Afghans, their greatest immediate need is shelter. Many simply have nowhere to go. Many say international aid agencies are the only source of relief.

Annisis and Ratya say their family fled to neighboring Iran 20 years ago, but the two women recently returned to Kabul with their elderly husband. Now these women are building their own home brick by brick.

"You have to return home, even if you are away for 100 years, you have to return back. We are happy we did."

The Soviet invasion unleashed a major stream of refugees. But even after the Soviet army was driven out in 1989, Afghanistan found no peace. Instead, the country was wracked by civil war and again people fled. Then came the radical Islamic rule of the Taliban, driving yet more people out. The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 toppled the Taliban, but stability has not yet returned to this mountainous land. Peace is still fragile and elusive.

Aid workers say hope for Afghanistan's future may rest with the refugees, those willing to brave the high mountain passes, committed to starting a new life in a country, many barely know.

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