Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - A family affair

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

The return of the Kazaks

In the aftermath of the 1916 rebellion in Russia tens of thousands of Kazaks fled to neighbouring countries. Hundreds of thousands more left during the 1930s, as a result of Stalin's collectivization programme and the ensuing famine in Kazakstan. Those who settled in Afghanistan had a particularly difficult time, especially after the 1979 Soviet invasion of that country. Die-hard Soviets branded them descendants of traitors who had fled the USSR. And when many Afghan-Kazakhs refused to fight for their new country, the bulk of the Afghan-Kazakh population were forced to flee to Iran early in the war.

In 1992, a year after the Soviet collapse, the newly independent Kazak government began to repatriate ethnic Kazaks, first from Mongolia and then from Iran, Tajikistan and Turkey. They came by train and plane, boat and bus and on foot, a total of 155,000 by 1996. Among the Afghan-Kazakhs returning 'home' were Mohammed Amin and his wife, Halima, both born in Afghanistan. They settled into two rooms in a large village near the capital of Almaty, the first time they had actually set foot on Kazak soil.

Mohammed Amin, aged 54:
"My parents left Kazakstan in 1934-35 because of the famine. I was born in Faryab Province in north-west Afghanistan. So was my wife. I met her in Mazar-I-Sharif, where we got married. Her parents were Pashtuns from Logar Province.

When the war started in Afghanistan, we moved to Iran. We spent 13 years there, working together making clothes.

Then Kazakstan became independent and we decided to move here. We arrived in a special train, arranged by the government, by the President of Kazakstan. We're very grateful.

We have ten children. Seven of them live here with us, two of them in another oblast (district). One daughter remained in Iran.

We run a small business. We buy food items in Almaty, which we then resell here in the village. For us, it's fine so long as we can eat. We don't mind where we are. The authorities gave us somewhere to live. We are very thankful to the local authorities who assist us with many problems.

Halima, aged 40:
"That's not true! Why do you tell lies? We can barely get by. Life was better in Iran. All my family are still living in Afghanistan, in Mazar-I-Sharif. When the war started, we fled to Iran. I have no news about my mother, father or sisters in Mazar. I don't know if they're all right. I haven't heard from them for 17 years."

Interviews by Rupert Colville