• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase 

text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - The man who has seen it all

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1997

Central Asia has been in turmoil for decades, and one old man who has been both a resistance fighter and refugee several times over, has seen it all.

By Mervyn T. Patterson
Northern Afghanistan Program Manager for Save the Children Federation, USA

The history of Central Asia is etched deeply into the wizened face of Khodai Nazar. He is 90 years plus he can't recall his exact age and what Khodai does not know about the turbulent region during this century, is probably not worth knowing anyway. He can recall the decline and fall of Imperial Russia and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Conflict and flight have been his constant companions, and he has been both a resistance fighter and a refugee several times over.

The Czars had earlier conquered the central Asian khanates where Khodai Nazar's family lived and, following the collapse of the House of Romanov in 1917, the Bolsheviks pursued ruthless policies toward local tribes. Revolt and famine gripped the land as Moscow enforced a disastrous policy of collectivization and tried to eliminate religion, tribal leaders and the whole traditional way of life.

Khodai's father was a prominent Turkmen tribal leader from near Kerki, which was originally part of the Emirate of Bukhara, and was a natural target for the men from Moscow. "The Russians told us that we should give up our property, that we would all be equal," Khodai recalls. "They promised us everything. Then our sheep and children started to die; our wells had been poisoned. Then they started arresting and killing or deporting people." For the first time, but not the last, Khodai's tribe fled, battling its way into Afghanistan as executions and deportations swept its Bukhara homeland.

Turkmen, Uzbeks and Tajiks have wandered this region for centuries in a constantly changing tribal mosaic, and when Khodai reached northern Afghanistan, in some ways it was almost like a home away from home because many of his fellow Turkmen already lived there. The northern Afghan border was a legacy of imperial rivalry and though it was a convenient administrative marker for central governments, it signified little in the day-to-day lives of the region's tribesmen.

At one point, Khodai became a resistance fighter with the Basmachi, an anti-Bolshevik group led by the legendary Enver Pasha. The Basmachi were initially supported by the central government in Kabul and then fought against it when Moscow's influence in the Afghan capital began to increase.

When Soviet troops invaded the country, Khodai and many of his fellow Turkmen became refugees again, fleeing to neighbouring Pakistan for several years. He returned home in 1992, wearied by a lifetime of flight and war, hopeful he would spend his last days in peace. But conflict has proved as constant in Khodai's life as peace has been elusive, and in May this year, there was renewed fighting around his village as Taliban forces tried to impose their authority on the region. The old man said this latest round of warfare only underlined a painful lesson learned the hard way throughout his life that tribesmen like himself can trust no-one and can safeguard their families and future only by relying on themselves and their clansmen.

Once more his family loaded him onto a cart and headed off into the desert toward the Turkmenistan border and possible safety. The fighting came and went as it has done in the past, but this last, aborted flight, proved one journey too far for the old Turkmen. "I am too old to move again," he said. "I will see out my remaining days here."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)




UNHCR country pages

Afghan Refugees in Iran

At a recent conference in Geneva, the international community endorsed a "solutions strategy" for millions of Afghan refugees and those returning to Afghanistan after years in exile. The plan, drawn up between Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and UNHCR, aims to support repatriation, sustainable reintegration and assistance to host countries.

It will benefit refugee returnees to Afghanistan as well as 3 million Afghan refugees, including 1 million in Iran and 1.7 million in Pakistan.

Many of the refugees in Iran have been living there for more than three decades. This photo set captures the lives of some of these exiles, who wait in hope of a lasting solution to their situation.

Afghan Refugees in Iran

More focus needed on reintegration of former Afghan refugees

Many of the more than 5.5 million Afghan refugees who have returned home since 2002 are still struggling to survive. Lack of land, job opportunities and other services, combined with poor security in some places, has caused many returnees to head to urban areas. While cities offer the promise of informal day labour, the rising cost of rental accommodation and basic commodities relegate many returnees to life in one of the informal settlements which have mushroomed across Kabul in recent years. Some families are living under canvases and the constant threat of eviction, while others have gained a toe-hold in abandoned buildings around the city.

UNHCR gives humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable, and is currently rallying support from donors and humanitarian and development agencies to redouble efforts to help returning refugees reintegrate in Afghanistan.

More focus needed on reintegration of former Afghan refugees

Angelina Jolie promotes reintegration of Afghan returnees

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie in March 2011 returned to Afghanistan. On her second trip to the country, the acclaimed actress called for greater focus to be put on the reintegration of former refugees. More than 5.5 million refugees have returned since 2002, mainly from Pakistan and Iran, and now make up 20 per cent of the population. UNHCR is concerned that too many of these refugees continue to live without jobs, shelter and other basic needs.

Jolie caught up with several families she had met in 2008, still living in a dilapidated warehouse in Kabul. She was moved to see the families struggling to survive in the cold damp building. Children spend their days washing cars for money instead of attending school; the old and sick told Jolie of their pain to be such a burden on the young.

The actress also visited returned refugees living on the Alice Ghan and Barikab land allocation schemes north of Kabul. The returnees told her they were grateful for their houses but needed help with livelihoods. Jolie also visited Qala Gadu village, where she is funding the construction of a girls' primary school.

Angelina Jolie promotes reintegration of Afghan returnees

Pakistan: Returning HomePlay video

Pakistan: Returning Home

Since the beginning of November, UNHCR has been offering an enhanced package to every registered refugee in Pakistan choosing to go home to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan HomecomingPlay video

Afghanistan Homecoming

Since 2002, UNHCR has helped nearly 4 million Afghan refugees to return home from Pakistan. Recently, Ahmed Shafiq made the journey with his family after 15 years as a refugee. This is his story.
Afghanistan: Mariam's StoryPlay video

Afghanistan: Mariam's Story

Mariam was a refugee in Iran for six years. The widow and mother returned in 2002 and has been internally displaced ever since. Her situation is very uncertain.