View Comments
Return of Afghans is journey into the unknown
alik Sak Higul, 60, in Udmanzai refugee camp in Peshawar. Picture: Lee Griffith/The West Australian

Malik Sakhigul was just 28 when he ran away from Afghanistan. Soviet troops had swept through the country so he grabbed what little he could and led his parents and three daughters east across the border into Pakistan. More than three million of his countrymen ended up joining him.

Now 60, he returned home this month in a secret trip that marked the first tentative steps towards a permanent return - part voluntary and part under duress - and attempted to answer the question hanging over the heads of millions of Afghans in exile around the world: is it finally safe to go back?

"I went to see the conditions," he said last week.

"I wanted to see whether we will have a place to live there or not."

Malik is one of the elders at the Utmanzai refugee camp - a dry, dusty collection of mud huts in Pakistan's north-west, surrounded by cemeteries and filled with children who sing old songs of the beauty of a neighbouring country that to them is little more than legend.

"The younger ones think it is a magical place," one aid worker explains, "they only know it from the songs which describe Kabul as a most beautiful city with the bravest people in the world."

"It is when the children get older, about six years, that they start to learn what has happened."

Utmanzai sprang up during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan 33 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled for their lives across the border and sought refuge in Pakistan, kicking off the world's longest-running refugee crisis and creating what still is the biggest cluster of refugees anywhere in the globe, reaching a peak of more than four million.

It is a place where two generations of Afghans have grown up never seeing their ancestral home and not understanding why the country in which they were born has never accepted them, banning them because of their blood from voting, holding a bank account or even a driver's licence.

Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Peshawar - Two young Afghan girls wait at the Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Peshawar while their parents fill out documents. Picture: Lee Griffith/The West Australian

On the outskirts of the north-west city of Peshawar, one of three UNHCR repatriation centres set up 10 years ago processes dozens of families each day. Each of them has chosen to return to Afghanistan.

Thirty-eight-year-old Inayatullah spent last week completing the final paperwork for him, his wife, and his young son and daughter to be resettled in Afghanistan in the next few days.

"It will be difficult. There will be financial problems and we will have no land," he said.

"I have not been back there since we ran away but I hear it is improving. We want to start a new life there in our country."Since this voluntary repatriation program began in 2002, 3.7 million exiled Afghans have returned, 1.5 million of them in the first year.But even the UNHCR admits the figures need to be treated cautiously. It has no way of knowing how many of these people have since returned to Pakistan. The anecdotal evidence is that many of them have. Despite the regular exodus (40,000 in the first six months of this year), there are still 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees within Pakistan's borders, the same figure as when The West Australian last visited the camps two years ago."There are big changes in Afghanistan," says Matteo Paoltroni, who, with the Danish Refugee Council, arranged this month's return by Malik and the 19 other tribal elders."In a way, the situation is improving and, on the other hand, it is still dramatic and difficult, especially in specific areas of the country. It is inaccessible to most of us, especially the south is very difficult to monitor."He says the council chose the Kama district because it was one of 48 identified by the UNHCR as stable enough to return. But there are more than a million registered refugees in exile and big swathes of Afghanistan are still unreachable, even to aid organisations.
Three generations of Afghans in exile, Matiullah with sons Salman, 3, and Uzman, 1, and his father Zarawar. Picture: Lee Griffith / The West Australian
"Something is changing there. But, of course, it sounds like everything is fine but then tomorrow there could be a bomb so it still is difficult," he says."If these people believe they can return with safety and dignity, then we will help them."But it is a very difficult decision, especially when you have nothing back there. What are these people going to do? What is the future for these people? It is a big dilemma for Afghanistan."Last Thursday, in the sparse surrounds of Utmanzai, Malik and the 19 other elders who had travelled with him across the border into Afghanistan's Kama district, gathered the community together and told them what they had seen."I cannot speak for the whole country, but where I went the security situation is fine," he said."We will have enough land but no shelter. And the land we have is enough to live in but not enough for cultivation. It is not only shelter you need. You need to feed your family."When pushed on it later, Malik admits he doesn't want to go: "I'm happy here in Pakistan. The security situation, compared to Afghanistan, is better."But over the past few months, the Pakistan Government has made it clear that it doesn't want to play host to the refugees any longer and has called for them to leave.
Young boys at the Khazana refugee camp in Peshawar. Picture: Lee Griffith/The West Australian

"In Pakistan, one of the reasons many of us are preferring to stay is because of the better economic conditions here," Malik says."We don't have any source of income if we go to Afghanistan. Once that problem is solved, I think people will return. But the problem is livelihood opportunities."It is not a view shared by everyone. About two hours away from Utmanzai, in the 7200-strong camp known as Khazana, an old man known as Zarawar (who doesn't know his age but thinks he is in his 80s) says after 32 years in Pakistan he is "happy here" and doesn't want to be forced out."I don't want to go back to Afghanistan for the rest of my life," he says. His 32-year-old son, Matiullah, was born in the camp, married a woman also born there and gave Zarawar his three young grandchildren in the same mud surrounds."This is home."