The Associated Press, November 18, 2008
Afghan returnees huddle in tent camps
At the height of their exodus, Afghans made up the world's largest refugee population with 8 million people in more than 70 countries.
Returned Afghan refugee boys study at a makeshift school at a refugee camp in Sheikh Mersi in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008. The U.N.'s refugee chief called Monday for wealthy nations to do more to help destitute returnees like Khan as he visited their makeshift settlement.-AP Photo
Ajab Khan's five children were born in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Now the 48-year-old has brought his family home to Afghanistan — to a tent pitched on a rocky plain just steps away from land mines.
Khan and his children are among nearly 4,000 Afghan families living in a makeshift settlement because their homes were destroyed or overtaken in the decades they spent abroad waiting out wars. First, with the former Soviet Union in the 80s, then the strife of civil war and most recently the U.S. offensive against the Taliban.
The United Nation's refugee chief visited Chamtala settlement Monday in eastern Afghanistan and called for wealthy nations to do more to build new communities for destitute returnees like Khan.
"There has not been enough support from the international community," High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, told assembled elders from the camp. He said he would press rich countries to donate more to the cause of returnees during an international conference on the refugee issue in the Afghan capital this week.
At the height of their exodus, Afghans made up the world's largest refugee population with 8 million people in more than 70 countries. More than 5 million of these people have returned home since 2002, according to the U.N.
Donor nations should show their "full solidarity to the Afghan people, to those that come back, to those that go on coming back, because they want also to rebuild their country but face huge challenges in rebuilding their lives," Guterres told The Associated Press later.
Chamtala is one of five makeshift settlements countrywide in which more than 30,000 recent returnees from various countries are living in tents with only basic emergency supplies from the government and aid groups, according the U.N. refugee agency.
They are part of an ongoing influx of people — some pushed back across the Pakistan border by closures of refugee camps, others by fighting between government forces and Islamic militants in border areas. Most of the families at Chamtala have arrived since May.
Pakistan says it is not forcefully deporting anyone. But some in Chamtala say they were not given any choice when their camps closed except to board trucks heading across the border.
"They sent the police to make us leave. They put us in a truck and took us out," said Gul Sadad, 28. He said the truck did not just take him out of the camp, but all the way back to Afghanistan.
Many of those who return are coming because they've run out of options. Khan said he tried to work in Pakistan after his camp closed about a year ago. After a few unsuccessful months he used his remaining money to buy space in a car for his family going to back to the home he hadn't seen for 29 years.
But he only made it as far as Chamtala, where the government gave him a tent. Here there are hundreds of others from his native Sahrak district, all saying they can't go back because it was destroyed in the fighting with the former Soviet Union, or others have taken their land, or they don't have the money to buy a herd of sheep or goats that used to be their livelihood. At least in the tent city they're only 16 miles from Jalalabad — the capital of Nangarhar province and the source of day-labor jobs.
Khan now says he wants to go back to Pakistan. He only has one good leg and he's too old to start over. There he had solid shelter, good food and plenty of blankets. Here the wind rips holes in the tents. And a line of white paint marks the border beyond which there are still land mines.
"We were happy in Pakistan. If I had money I would go back there," he said.
About three million Afghans are still living in Pakistan and Iran, the U.N. says.
Many of those who have returned to find themselves homeless in recent years have been given the rights to the land in their squatter camps, and Chamtala is slated for the same reconstruction. That would mean two-room houses, a medical clinic and a school. But the demand for land has far outpaced the allotments, Guterres said, even though much of it is in undesirable areas.
For Khan, the dilemma is one that he can no longer solve himself.
"We cannot go back to Pakistan. And I am not going back to my village because I want and hope people will help us here," he said.
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