Crisis looms as Afghans return home

Nick Macfie,PUL-I-CHARKHI, Afghanistan, Reuters

Multicolored buses packed with Afghan families and stacked with bicycles, beds and goats rolled into the reception point of Pul-i-Charkhi on Sunday as a mass return of refugees showed no let up.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was pleased the millionth refugee was due home later in the day under a repatriation program, but said again on Sunday a crisis was in the making if donors did not come up with more cash.

“It would be unfair and unjust to the new government and to the refugees to drop the program,” UNHCR chief of operations for Afghanistan Filippo Grandi told reporters.

Afghans, along with Palestinians, are the largest group of refugees in the world.

The UNHCR’s budget for the repatriation program that began in March was US$271 million. So far donors have given just $186 million.

“It’s an emergency in reverse,” UNHCR spokesman Yusuf Hassan told Reuters. The Afghans fled their homes in an emergency during 23 years of war and now they were returning and creating another.

“They need shelter, food, jobs. Half will have no house to return to, no safe drinking water, and health care is in shambles.”

The “encashment center” at Pul-i-Charkhi, on the outskirts of Kabul, sits in a dustbowl, nomads with their camels camped to the south, mountains rising to the east on the road back to Jalalabad, the Khyber Pass and Pakistan beyond.

The camp is a model of efficiency. The refugees are taken on a tour through tents.

First is a 30-second lecture on landmines, grenades, shells and other ordnance they are told not to pick up once they reach home. Five-year-old girls, their faces wizened and lined like grandmothers, look on with open mouths.

Then comes thumbprint registration, weighing and measuring, oral polio vaccinations and injections, prompting howls from babies, their hair and faces matted with dirt.

But the overwhelming mood, seen on all faces once the formalities were dispensed with, was one of excitement and hope.

One old widow, Gultap, travelling with her hairdresser son and a daughter dressed in a gold-colored, head-to-toe burqa shroud, said she was overjoyed to be leaving the Peshawar camp where she had lived for five years.

“I prayed to God that the Taliban would go. They were very bad people,” she told Reuters before boarding a bus for the last leg of her trip to Kabul. She said she had high hopes for Hamid Karzai, because he respected human rights and women.

She herself was no longer wearing the burqa the Taliban forced all women to don on penalty of a beating, or even worse.

“But only because I am hot,” she said with a grin. “Still I worry, because it is shame for me to be seen.”

Abdul Naveed, 30, was just happy to out of Pakistan where he spent six or seven years working in a bazaar. Looking old before his time, he said about 500 Afghan refugees had been put in jail in Islamabad on suspicion of crimes they had never committed.

“I was in jail myself for three months for no reason. They don’t have good intentions towards refugees, especially the police. The police are very bad people.”

Hassan said many refugees in Pakistan were awaiting the result of Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga tribal assembly to create a new government under Karzai, before deciding whether to make the move back home.

“We had predicted 800,000 (refugees) would return this year, half from Pakistan and half from Iran,” Hassan said. “Now we predict two million. “It is too early to say there will be deaths on a large scale, but it will destabilize this country and put pressure on a fragile system.”