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Pakistan resumes forcing Afghan refugees to return home

Two children stand among the ruins of what was once shops at the Jalozai refugee camp in Pakistan.
Two children stand among the ruins of what was once shops at the Jalozai refugee camp in Pakistan. Saeed Shah / MCT

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities have resumed sending tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, many of whom have lived for decades in camps near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, back to Afghanistan.

The ouster of the Afghans from the massive Jalozai refugee camp just east of Peshawar was put on hold last week after fighting broke out along the highway that leads through the legendary Khyber Pass to the Afghan border.

On Sunday, however, brightly colored trucks were making their way through the pass again, loaded with the worldly possessions of thousands of Afghan families. Women and children perched on top as the trucks lurched forward.

An estimated 2,000 Afghan refugees passed through the border checkpoint at Torkham on Sunday. They came in giant, open-top trucks, heavily laden with everything from doors, window frames and beds to piles of wooden beams and planks that will be used to construct homes in Afghanistan.

Rahul Amin, a bus conductor, was born in Jalozai. Now 19, he said that Pakistan is his home.

"We don't think of Afghanistan as our country," he said. "When I have raised my voice, it is for Pakistan."

Jalozai was established in 1980 as Afghans began fleeing the Soviet invasion of their country, and it was the largest and oldest camp for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, once housing 80,000 people in a small city of solid mud or brick homes, electricity, running water and schools.

Last week, bulldozers moved in to begin demolition, making rubble of the houses and shops that once stood along the settlement's main road. Neat piles of bricks and wood marked what some refugees had salvaged for resale. Others are taking the material with them.

Shah Ghasi, 70, sat alongside a pile of wood, hoping for customers. His home in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, was destroyed during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. He's been at Jalozai for 24 years.

"We are homeless here now, and we will be homeless there" in Afghanistan, he said. "I don't have the money to go."

More than 3 million Afghans fled to Pakistan, where they've lived ever since without being given citizenship.

"In other countries, you get citizenship after five years, here you don't get it after 20 years," said 21-year-old Hazmat Khan. "This (Jalozai) was just a jungle. We turned it into a town. There wasn't even a donkey here before."

"My younger brother went to Kabul. He doesn't have so much as water there."

A Pakistani official at the camp, who declined to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters, said that 1,043 families had left the camp as of Saturday. Some 10,000 families remain.

The official said that refugees had the option of relocating to another camp, but just 38 families had done so. "They signed a contract with us; 50 (Afghan) elders signed an agreement to leave. Their continued stay here is illegal," he said.

It costs about $400 to hire a truck to take a family and its possessions to Afghanistan. In Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, returning families can claim $100 per person from the United Nations.

Pakistani authorities had set April 15 as the deadline for all refugees to leave Jalozai. It was the second deadline; the first had been extended by six months. But this time, the authorities meant business, sending in the bulldozers.

Pakistan plans to send all Afghan refugees back by the end of 2009. But the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan has warned that so speedy a resettlement program risks creating a humanitarian crisis, given the conflict in Afghanistan.

"There are not the jobs for these people in Afghanistan. It is not sustainable," said UNHCR spokeswoman Vivian Tan in Islamabad. "They will only come back to Pakistan."

Pakistan's haste may be tied to security concerns. Jalozai and other camps were once the breeding ground for anti-Soviet jihadis. These days, a different breed of jihadi, the Taliban, are believed to use them as places to rest between campaigns.

The Shamshatoo camp is associated with Afghan military commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, while Ustad Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a veteran mujaheddin fighter and hard-line Islamic theologian, allegedly ran Jalozai.

"You never know who comes and who goes in these camps," said Mehmood Shah, a former top provincial interior ministry official. "The government of Pakistan has decided that the Afghan mujaheddin must finally go back."

Shah said that the U.S. officials he'd discussed the issue with were uncertain whether closing the camps was a good idea.

"The U.S. was 50/50 on this issue," Shah said.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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