Reuters, February 2, 2007

Afghan refugees fear war, reluctant to go home

Haji Zardad Khan: There's no peace in Afghanistan, we can't go there in this situation

By Saeed Ali Achakzai

PIR ALIZAI CAMP, Pakistan: Pakistan says its Afghan refugee camps are a hotbed of support for a resurgent Taliban and they should be closed, but it seems no one in the Pir Alizai camp wants to go home.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Afghan refugees are living in deplorable situation in Pakistan refugee camps.

A sprawling settlement of about 150,000 refugees crammed into mud houses about 50 km (30 miles) from the Afghan border, Pir Alizai was set up soon after Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Nearly 30 years later and Afghanistan is still at war, but Pakistan is now determined to close the camp, and other similar settlements, saying they have become sanctuaries for Taliban battling the Afghan government and U.S. and NATO troops across the border.

"There's no peace in Afghanistan, we can't go there in this situation," said Haji Zardad Khan, a 55-year-old resident of the camp. "We'd even be willing to go to Pakistani jails rather than go back to our country."

Violence surged in Afghanistan last year to its most intense since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001. Afghanistan and its allies say the Taliban's strength is partly a result of safe havens in Pakistan.

NATO and Pakistan agreed this week that three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan posed a security threat and needed to be repatriated.

Afghanistan has struggled to cope with the return of more than 4.6 million refugees since the Taliban were overthrown.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.N. refugee agency agree repatriation of the remainder will be voluntary and gradual. Afghanistan would be overwhelmed if Pakistan started forcing back large numbers, aid officials say.

Four camps in Pakistan are due to be closed soon but there are numerous others -- small and large -- scattered across border provinces.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told a news conference in the city of Rawalpindi on Friday the camps, particularly those in Baluchistan province, like Pir Alizai, were Taliban havens.

"We don't want them here, take them away, let them go back to Afghanistan," he said.


But residents of Pir Alizai denied Taliban militants were hiding in the camp, although some people appeared sympathetic toward the Islamists battling to expel U.S. and NATO troops and defeat the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

"There's unrest in Afghanistan and there's no system there," said Mohammad Tahir Agha, 35, a cleric at a religious school in the camp. "The government is corrupt so they level these allegations that the Taliban and al Qaeda have headquarters here."

One young man said angrily that foreign "infidel" troops must leave Afghanistan.

"How can we go back when America is there?" asked the man, Mateen Jan, 26. He said he was eight years old when he came to Pakistan with his family.

"Musharraf is now our president. Hamid Karzai brought infidels to our country and unless they are expelled we won't recognize Karzai as our president," he said.

Police and other security agencies have no presence in the camps, which are run by shuras, or councils, made up of residents.

"Nobody knows exactly who is in the camps," said a security official.

Bibi Fatima, 56, said she didn't want to face U.S. bombing back in Afghanistan.

"We just want to be allowed to live here," she said. "Pakistan tells us to go back but instead of being killed by American bombs there it would be better if Pakistani bombs killed us here."

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