After decades in Pakistan, thousands of refugees return "home" to Afghanistan.

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 22 2008 8:02 AM

To Leave or Not To Leave?

After decades in Pakistan, thousands of refugees return "home" to Afghanistan.


JALOZAI, Pakistan—To leave or not to leave? That is the question 80,000 Afghans in the Jalozai refugee camp, located 20 miles from Peshawar, must ask themselves. It is not a theoretical matter: Last week, almost three decades after it was set up, the camp officially closed.

This imam hopes his congregation will return to Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
This imam hopes his congregation will return to Afghanistan

Those displaced by the fighting in Iraq and Darfur at least receive some international attention, but the world's biggest refugee crisis for more than a quarter of a century is now a largely forgotten "old caseload." These are Afghans who fled the Soviet invasion and the many upheavals that followed. Three million have already returned home, but more than 2 million are still in Pakistan and 1 million in Iran. Jalozai is the biggest of the remaining 86 camps in Pakistan, all slated for closure sooner or later.

The security situation in Afghanistan is not getting better, but the new coalition government in Islamabad has no more patience for hosting such a huge refugee population than the previous Musharraf government did. Formal agreements about repatriation were reached between Islamabad, Kabul, and UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency.

Repatriation is always the most desirable conclusion to a refugee crisis, provided it is safe and voluntary. Yet during the registration conducted by UNHCR and the Pakistani Ministry of State and Frontier Regions in 2007, 84 percent of Afghans in Pakistan said they didn't want to "return," even though their registration cards say in big letters "Afghan citizen." No wonder: Most were born here, and they have never set foot in Afghanistan; few have a house or land to go back to. But the opportunities for staying in Pakistan legally are practically nonexistent, so return may be the lesser evil. Thus the dilemma.

"Leave," says Ahmedzai, an elegant and soft-spoken 53-year-old technician who works for a de-mining company in Kabul. He came to Peshawar while fighting the Soviet invasion. He kept his family in Pakistan after he found the job in Afghanistan in 1995, because he wanted a good education for his sons. He has no house in Kabul, but he is anxious to be "home" because the daily announcements about the impending closure that are blasted from the loudspeakers in the camp's mosque create unbearable pressure on all the camp inhabitants, including Ahmedzai when he comes on leave to relax from his nerve-wrecking de-mining job.

"Stay," says Haq, a fortysomething ethnic Turkmen from Mazar-i-Sharif in northwestern Afghanistan, who came fleeing the Taliban. He receives me with his wife and children sitting on their carpet-weaving frame, wool flakes littering the space. He worries that given the low prices for carpets in Afghanistan, he could not make a living from weaving. A political refugee when he came to Pakistan, he now seems economically ill-prepared for life in a country as dependent on foreign aid as Afghanistan. He would prefer to go to Turkmenistan, but UNHCR says that the former Soviet republic is not accepting its ethnic brethren.

"Leave," decided Noor, a teacher of English who is preparing to go because of the closure of the camp school. He learned English two decades ago in a program run by International Rescue Committee (we have been working in Pakistan for 28 years). Noor hopes that many other Afghans will return with their children, because then he could continue his job as a teacher. Likewise, his father-in-law could continue as imam if the congregation returned.

"Stay," declares a 67-year-old ethnic Pashtun who did not authorize me to use his name. He is from the northern Jawzjan province and came to Pakistan 29 years ago. He was a freedom fighter against the Soviet invasion, but he brought his family to the safety of this Pakistani camp while he commanded 2,500 mujahideen. Among his former adversaries in the complicated Afghan wars were some who now hold high positions in the government of President Hamid Karzai. For this Pashtun, a return to Afghanistan is too risky, so he is insistent that he is not going back: "I will stay in the camp until the bulldozers come."

But can an old man—even a former mujahideen—stand up to a bulldozer?

Refugees dismantle their own homes so that they can salvage the valuable beams. Click image to expand.
Refugees dismantle their own homes so that they can salvage the valuable beams

The road to UNHCR's repatriation center in Peshawar—where I met those who are being "de-registered" after voting with their feet to leave—follows the enormous terrain that is all that remains of the Kacha Garhi camp. Kacha Garhi once hosted 65,000 Afghan refugees, but it was razed to the ground by bulldozers last July. It is a dreadful reminder that camps in Pakistan eventually close, whether or not Afghanistan is ready to receive the refugees. Now the only sign that Afghans lived on this leveled field for decades is a grim one: Peshawar's coffin producers have chosen to showcase their offerings by the side of the road. The caskets that line the side of the road are sold to departing Afghans who want to take the remains of their ancestors with them.

Outside the repatriation center, we accompanied the de-mining technician to his truck, which was loaded high with everything he could take from his house: beams, window frames, refrigerator, washing machine, beds, bedding, and the entire family mounted on top, women covered by blue burqas, children in their best clothes. My colleague told me that some refugees from Jalozai dismantled their homes themselves, rather than let the bulldozers do it, so that they can salvage the most precious parts of the mud house, namely, the beams. Pointing to the back of the truck, where battered logs were neatly stacked, she made a disarming lapsus linguae: "See? They take with them all their dreams."

Indeed they do.



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
Sept. 19 2014 3:24 PM Why Innovators Hate MBAs
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.