PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Gathered with friends outside a tiny shop that sells little more than bags of sugar, tea, and simple candies, Sultan Gul says he would like to return someday to his native Afghanistan.
But for Gul, what was supposed to be a temporary spell as a refugee escaping the Soviet-Afghan war has taken on all the trappings of a permanent existence in neighboring Pakistan.
Gul was among the millions of Afghans who fled to escape the 1979-89 war. Now in his 50s -- and 25 years after the last of the Soviets left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989 -- he remains among those who never returned home.
For him, the Akora Khattak camp located halfway between Islamabad and Peshawar has become home. "Everyone loves his country. We love our country very much and we are sons of the soil," Gul says. "But we don't see it as the right time to live there now. Whenever we see it, we will go there, otherwise, we shall continue living here because [Pakistan] is also a brother Muslim country."
Gul has removed the prosthesis that substitutes for the leg he lost from the knee down when he stepped on a Russian landmine during the Soviet war. Whether he lost his leg as a mujahedin fighting the Soviets or as a simple farmer, he won't say. Like many refugees he prefers to keep details of his former life secret.
The secrecy helps avoid enmity among the residents of the camp, who have come from many sides in Afghanistan's decades of conflicts. The conflicts include the civil war between mujahedin groups that followed the Soviet war, the rise of the Taliban, the overthrow of the Taliban by NATO in 2001, and the guerilla war with the Taliban today.
Putting Down Roots
But fear of continued unrest in Afghanistan, particularly with NATO slated to remove the bulk of its forces by the end of this year, is not the only factor keeping Gul in the camp. He has not joined the some 3.8 million other refugees who have returned to their homeland since 2002 because, with two wives, he is the father of 12 children who are now rooted in the life of the camp.
Two of his daughters are married while the rest of his children go to the camp school. His oldest son, 16, helps to support the family by working as a day laborer -- the only local work available to the camp residents.
Men of Gul's age can remember a time when life in the camp was much better than today. That was during the height of the Soviet war, when countries supporting the mujahedin resistance regularly sent generous amounts of aid to the refugee camps. Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest donor countries, sent trucks of meat from sacrificed animals to mark major Muslim feast days and many other countries sent gifts of clothes and quilts.
...Or Permanent Refugees
Yet today, the 1.6 million Afghan refugees who remain in camps scattered across Pakistan say they are forgotten. International aid agencies have largely phased out support amid other refugee crises since 2001 and in hopes Pakistan will help those who stay to integrate into its society and become fully independent. Islamabad says it is working toward this, but the refugees counter that they remain marginalized in ways that constantly pressure them to leave the country.
Haji Abdul Shakoor, another refugee from the Soviet war, says the biggest problem is that he still has a refugee card as his only form of identification. "We can't purchase even a SIM card. The SIM cards we buy to use in our mobile phones, we have to get them in the name of a Pakistani. We are not allowed to apply for the hajj," he says.
"We have no facilities anywhere. Whenever we go to some government office or to a police station, they don't accept our guarantees for a bail. We have to get a lawyer, pay [the police] money, or find some other way," Shakoor continues. "In short, we refugees have no status here. Of course they promise a lot, but in reality, we have no status."
The refugee camp is no longer the collection of tents the first arrivals found in the late 1980s. Over the decades, its tents have grown into a collection of simple mud-brick homes which, from a distance, could be mistaken for an extension of the nearby town of Akora Khattak.
But on closer look, it's clear the camp remains a world apart.
When it rains, the lanes between the homes run with sewage because the camp has never been connected to the nearby town's pipelines. Only electricity lines connect the camp to Pakistan's larger infrastructure, despite the fact the camp is now in its fourth decade.
That means that many residents, like 22-year-old Mohammad Yousaf, have never lived in their homeland. His grandparents and parents came to live in the Akora Khattak camp, and he sees himself as trapped there. "I was born in this camp and I have visited my own country only twice," he says. "We wish to go to our own country but you can see that [the security] situation is very bad there and that the infidels have come there and occupied our country."
Reported from Peshawar by RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal correspondent Khalid Khan. Written by Charles Recknagel in Prague with contributions from Radio Mashaal's Daud Khan