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A people at ground zero
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 02 - 2002

For over two decades Afghanistan's main export has been refugees. As another war winds down in the country, Al-Ahram Weekly explores the lot of the millions of Afghans who sought to escape the carnage
A people at ground zero
Although a semblance of peace has been restored to Afghanistan, refugees from the war-torn country face a bleak future, writes Iffat Malik from Islamabad
Afghanistan has become adept at breaking records -- all are negative. Few countries have been at conflict for such a sustained period of time (22 years and counting); few have as many unexploded land-mines or people who have lost limbs. Few countries have such a high infant mortality rate, or percentage of their population living in absolute poverty. And few have such an extensive and long- standing refugee population.
Afghans have been fleeing their homes in the millions since the Soviet occupation of 1979. Over six million people fled the country as a result of that crisis. Some 4.4 million did return after the Soviet withdrawal, but subsequent crises -- the civil war as well as drought and famine -- forced more people to become refugees. At the moment, out of a total population of 25 million people some 3.2 million are refugees (most of whom reside in Iran and Pakistan) and a further one million plus are internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Pakistan has been the main destination for fleeing Afghans. In the past it welcomed refugees from across the border, particularly during the period when the country was occupied by Soviet forces. There are strong ethnic, linguistic and cultural affiliations between Afghanistan's majority Pashtun population and those in Pakistan's Baluchistan and North-West Frontier (NFWP) provinces. And Pakistan has the longest and most porous border with Afghanistan.
The Afghan refugee population in Pakistan peaked at 3.6 million in the 1980s, and since then it has never fallen below 1.2 million. Current estimates by the Pakistani government put the figure at 3 million, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate is slightly lower at 2 million. Some of these people have been in Pakistan for over two decades; many were born there and have never even seen their homeland. Depending to a large extent on when they came, Afghans' conditions in Pakistan vary considerably.
Many of those who came years ago have migrated to Pakistan's large cities like Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, as well as the capital Islamabad, which is said to have 100,000 Afghans. Many have made new, successful lives for themselves. Afghans are particularly renowned for dominating the textiles trade in Pakistan.
Others still live in camps. The UNHCR has approximately 216 camps in Pakistan, mostly in the NWFP and Baluchistan. Some of these are so established that they have become more like little towns. Shamshatoo Camp, for example, has schools, clinics, workshops and mud houses. It has reasonable sanitation infrastructure; children can get an education; people get by.
In other camps, though, the story is completely different. New Jallozai Camp was established last year in what was once a riverbed -- now dry because of the lack of rain There is no sanitation infrastructure, services are limited and the typical accommodation is made of plastic sheeting.
International attention brought some relief to Afghan refugees in the form of tents but conditions remain -- in the words of one UNHCR official "deplorable." The same description would apply to the circumstances of those displaced within Afghanistan.
A major reason for the terrible conditions in which some -- especially recently arrived -- refugees are living is donor and host fatigue. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the country's disintegration into civil war, the international community largely lost interest in the plight of ordinary Afghans and aid dried up. As Hasim Utkan, UNHCR's representative in Pakistan, put it, "Afghan refugees went out of fashion." Almost everything being done for Afghans in Pakistan was -- prior to the current crisis -- funded by the United Nations and a handful of non-governmental organisations. A combination of international policy concerning refugees (insisting people leave their country before they can be considered refugees), difficulties in physical access and problems with the Taliban made getting aid to Afghan IDPs Afghans even harder.
The Pakistani government provides only land and security, but even then the burden on the country is huge. As the status of Afghans seemed to shift from guests to permanent residents, and as the social problems they allegedly created grew, namely, a "drug and Kalashnikov" culture, Pakistanis grew weary of their presence. In December 2001 an outbreak of leishamaniasis, a skin disease, among the Pakistani population of the NWFP, which was contracted from Afghan refugees, added health to Pakistanis' numerous economic and social concerns about the presence of so many Afghans.
The government's response was to seal off the border with Afghanistan, to refuse to accept additional refugees or to register those making it across, and in a few cases to deport people. Islamabad declared that camps should be established on the Afghan side of the border, and the UN and other agencies should help Afghans there. This, of course, clashed with the UN policy of not accepting people as refugees until they left their native land. Added to which, the Taliban government in power did not give the appearance of being an easy partner to negotiate with.
The 11 September attacks changed a great deal, including the refugee situation in Afghanistan. Initially the fear of US bombs and then the actual bombing caused a massive increase in both refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Despite Pakistan's strict restrictions on entry, the UNHCR estimates that 200,000 Afghans crossed into the country after 11 September. The number of internally displaced people, particularly in the remote west and north of Afghanistan, was probably even greater.
The bombing made it next to impossible to get aid to those people.
But the US military campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qa'eda also refocused international attention on ordinary Afghans. There is some awareness now that abandoning Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet Union contributed to the growth of extremist Islamism and that the same mistake should not be repeated. International aid is being pledged to Afghanistan in huge amounts. The two-day Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan, recently held in Tokyo, pledged $4.5 billion in aid over the next five years.
Assuming those pledges are fulfilled, there will inevitably still be a huge time lag between granting the aid being given and the improvement of conditions within Afghanistan. That country, it has to be recalled, is at "Ground Zero." Undependable electricity, telecommunications, potable water and sanitation infrastructure -- all of which are only in the cities -- a war- and drought- ravaged agricultural sector, no banking system or economy to speak of. All of these ills make effecting positive change in Afghanistan a daunting goal that will take considerable time.
Those factors account for the fact that Afghan refugees are not, despite the fall of the Taliban and the partial restoration of peace to their country, making a run for home. According to the UNHCR, approximately 58,000 people did go back after the collapse of the Taliban, but starting January the exodus in the opposite direction picked up again. Katerina Lumpp, UNHCR protection officer for Afghanistan, said, "It appears that the returnees were going home to survey conditions and see if returning was economically viable."
The Afghan refugees most likely to head for their homeland are those living in the most humble camps in Pakistan (as well as inside Afghanistan). They have nothing to lose, so primitive are the conditions they live in. Provided their safety can be assured -- that there will be no bombing and no banditry -- they will probably opt for misery in their own homes rather than in camps. But for those in the more established camps with basic facilities, and for the many thousands who have made a successful life in Pakistan's cities, conditions inside Afghanistan will have to get a lot better before they head back.
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