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Afghanistan: Long-Term Refugees Still Harbor Dreams Of Returning Home (Part 2)

  • Jeremy Bransten

Decades of conflict have sent more than 2 million Afghans across the border into neighboring Pakistan, where they often face a new hardship -- life in the country's notorious refugee camps. In this second of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports from Peshawar on the plight of Pakistan's long-term Afghan refugees.

Peshawar, Pakistan; 5 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A thousand mud huts stand isolated at the end of a 3-kilometer rutted dirt track. Dust clouds the air. Nothing grows here, apart from a strip of weeds that runs along an irrigation ditch that supplies the area's only fresh water.

This is home to 10,000 families. Fifty-thousand people. Welcome to Pakistan's Babu refugee camp.

Babu has existed for more than a decade, and its residents -- who are almost all ethnic Turkmen refugees from northern Afghanistan -- have lived on this arid plain 20 kilometers from Peshawar for most of that time.

What makes the Afghan Turkmen of Babu unique is that their camp has until now been almost totally self-sufficient. Refugees here receive no government handouts and no international aid. Thanks to their weaving skills -- almost every house has a loom -- the residents of Babu survived on the money they earned making carpets. And with those funds they paid rent for their houses and for the trickle of water that drips into the camp from the irrigation ditch.

But in the aftermath of 11 September and the U.S.-led campaign against Afghanistan, the international carpet market has collapsed, leaving the refugees of Babu deprived of their single source of income.

Abdul Samad, a Peshawar carpet trader, says foreign buyers, who used to be the mainstay of his business, have vanished: "Since 11 September, we have lost 90 percent of our business. Ninety percent!"

It takes a month to weave a meter of carpet. And for that meter, a Babu weaver used to receive 1,400 rupees -- or about $23 -- from wholesalers like Samad -- enough to meet basic needs. But since September, the rate for a meter of carpet has plummeted to just 500 rupees -- about $9 -- leaving the Babu refugees in desperate straits.

Thirty-eight-year-old Abdul Wakil strokes his beard sadly as he welcomes visitors into his mud house, where the carpet loom occupies pride of place. Wakil says that, although he has lived at Babu for more than a decade, he and his fellow refugees are eager to return to their homeland. Life at Babu is bleak -- and after all, he adds, they can weave and farm anywhere. The problem is security. Wakil and almost all of the Turkmen of Babu hail from northern Afghan regions near the troubled cities of Kondoz and Mazar-i-Sharif.

Wakil explains the dilemma: "We want to go back, and we will go back, but we don't trust the people, especially the present government. If the UN or the U.S. or another country takes an interest in bringing peace to Afghanistan, we will definitely return. As we are a minority, we will accept any new government if they successfully bring peace."

For now, Abdul Wakil says he and his fellow refugees are staying put, which means they have been reduced to asking for handouts. There are no opportunities outside of carpet weaving for the Afghan Turkmen at Babu to better their lot. They cannot legally get work outside the camp, and their children have no access to a proper education.

One mullah, or religious leader, on a volunteer basis, gives basic religious teaching to 160 camp children, including 50 girls. In a sense, they are the lucky few, representing barely 1 percent of the camp's child population. But the mullah, himself a refugee, readily admits the schooling he can provide is woefully insufficient: "We don't have any teachers to teach the children, and we don't have the money to hire any from outside the camp. That is why we are only able to provide our students with learning from religious books."

The residents of Babu may appeal to the authorities for help. But in the aftermath of 11 September, the Pakistani government has taken a hard line on the needs of refugees, attempting to seal its borders to new arrivals and cutting back its assistance programs.

From Islamabad's perspective, says American aid worker Nancy Dupree, that is understandable. Dupree is something of a legend among the Afghan refugee community of Pakistan. In 1949, Dupree left the United States to settle in Afghanistan, where she remained until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Since that time, and with none of her vigor lost, she has cared for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, working at the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR).

Dupree says that for more than two decades, the Pakistani authorities have set an example unmatched anywhere in the world by caring for more than 2 million refugees, despite limited resources, to the best of their ability -- ensuring their survival and sustenance: "This is because you have two cultural things working. Number one, most of the refugees are Pashtun, and there is a Pashtun code of honor that says that every Pashtun must help another Pashtun. That's also in Islam, that every Muslim must help another Muslim. These two principles, these two traditions, have been operating throughout, but it's been going on now for 20 to 25 years, and people are getting tired."

Since 11 September, that weariness has been expressed more and more stridently. The entry of politics into the equation means the refugee problem is now being passed around like a hot potato. The Pakistani government wants to ensure the international community alleviates its financial burden and has therefore been cutting back long-standing aid to the refugees, all the while encouraging the establishment of new camps within Afghanistan, to limit the inflow of fresh arrivals.

In addition, the Pakistani government now argues that Afghan refugees fleeing their homeland's devastating three-year drought do not qualify for asylum, designating them as economic migrants. Dupree argues this is plainly wrong: "When you have an economic migrant, somebody decides that he can make a better living at point B rather than point A. But these refugees that are fleeing the drought are not coming for a better economic environment. They are coming simply because they cannot survive. There is nothing to eat, so it is unfair to call them economic migrants. They are not. They are fleeing from dire starvation in their areas, which is now complicated by this American campaign of dropping bombs all over the place."

The debate over the refugees has spilled over into the Pakistani press, where columnists now regularly blame Afghan refugees for draining the nation's limited resources in difficult economic times. Public opinion, says Dupree, is changing: "The goodwill that I was talking about before between local populations and the refugee population -- that's evaporating because of the political situation, and it gets terribly, terribly complicated. Whether they are going to be able to work it out or not, I am appalled by the situation. I understand where the Pakistanis are coming from, but I am appalled at the fact that everybody is talking along their own agendas. They are forgetting that it's not just a number that they are dealing with -- these are human beings."

Where this will leave the residents of Babu -- so far forgotten by both the Pakistani authorities and international aid agencies -- is unclear. Their future is as murky as the ditch water they are forced to rely on for drinking water.