Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (Refugee voices from exile) - From one war to another

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1997

They were treated well in exile in Afghanistan, but the pull of home in Tajikistan proved irresistable to some refugees.

Interviews by Rupert Colville

The 1992 civil war in Tajikistan, which had its epicentre in the south-west of the country, was brutal, but relatively short-lived. However, its after-effects have rumbled on with fighting continuing in the eastern mountains, a dire economic situation, and continued displacement. In all, more than 1.1 million Tajik citizens have moved since the war began or one in five of the population (including the great majority of the country's ethnic minorities). However, of these, some 600,000 internally displaced people, and about 44,000 of the 63,000 refugees in Afghanistan, have returned to their homes in the south-western province of Khatlon since the main war ended in January 1993.

As well as assisting with the return of the refugees, UNHCR mounted an intensive monitoring operation in Khatlon, to insure the returnees were not being persecuted, and provided the materials for rebuilding 19,000 houses destroyed in the civil war. Nusrat, along with his three wives and eight children, was one of the beneficiaries of this pioneering UNHCR operation. He and Asrorof, married with no children, both repatriated in 1994. The latter was interviewed on the day he returned.

Nusrat, aged 40:

When the fighting reached Kurgan Tyube [the largest town in Khatlon], we all left for the Amu Darya river which marks the border with Afghanistan. We stayed for two months on the Tajik side. We didn't want to cross. Who would choose to flee into Afghanistan? Besides, it's a big river. Like all the thousands of others gathered along the river bank, we hoped that things would calm down.

Then as the fighting approached, our leaders said it would be better to cross the river. Some of the Afghans on the other side brought boats across. But there weren't enough for everybody, so we constructed rafts out of truck and tractor tires. I managed to get seven truck tires. I fastened planks on top of them. After I had got my family to the other side, I helped a lot of other people to cross. During the day people were crossing in waves. It continued like this for a week. There was shooting close to the river. People were even shooting at those crossing the river. I used to come back at night to pick up food and other provisions.

The Afghans were very welcoming. We'd heard that they would kill us. Instead they helped us to cross, and gave us food. An Afghan commander, General Momin, even brought in aid by helicopter. For about 12 days we lived in an empty house in a village called Koluch Tepa. Then an Afghan commander called Killikh transported us in trucks to Kunduz City where we lived in a cotton-cleaning factory. There were about 2,500 of us there. I was one of the leaders. We wrote many times to the UN, but the only aid we got was provided by Arab NGOs. They gave us blankets and plastic sheeting and also oil and sugar. The Arabs said if the UN helps you, we won't. If you want UN aid you must live out of town in a tent.

We came home in April 1994, because the Afghans started fighting each other. General Dostum's forces occupied Kunduz for three days. Lots of people were killed on both sides. About 40 Tajik refugees were also killed though not deliberately. One Tajik was shot, and then those who were trying to carry him away were also killed.

We hired a truck and went up to Sherkhan Bandar, where UNHCR maintained a transit camp for refugees wishing to cross the river back into Tajikistan. By this time, when the security situation allowed, a UNHCR barge was transporting returnees across the river once a week. We stayed in the camp in Sherkhan Bandar for 42 days, and then we came home."

Asrorof, aged 25:

"We left only 10 days after our marriage. When the war started we tried not to get involved. But people just burst into our houses, thrust sub-machine guns into our hands and told us to fight. We didn't want to, so we fled. We stayed near the Amu Darya river for four months, then crossed to Afghanistan. We went across at a shallow spot, using tractors to pull trucks across. People were helping each other.

We stayed in Imam Sahib for three days. Then we went down to Kunduz with a few relatives, where we lived on some empty land up in the hills about one kilometre from Kunduz City. We were given tents by the UN and food by the Arab NGOs. Sometimes we got food every 10 days, sometimes not for two months. We visited other refugees living at the airport conditions were similar. Like us they had to dig wells, and they received food from the Arabs. Sometimes we sold metal or minerals that we found while digging the wells. Some people worked for the Afghans if you worked from dawn to sunset, you could earn 2,000-3,000 afs, which meant you could buy some potatoes. We didn't have any problems with the Afghans. But they were having problems themselves. We saw them looting each other, but they didn't touch the Tajik refugees. The Arabs helped with the food, but the Tajik Refugee Committee distributing it stole a lot.

We stayed in Kunduz for seven or eight months, until the first three days of fighting in Kunduz in February 1994, when we moved to a village near Sherkhan Bandar. We remained there until October.

I would have returned home earlier but for the propaganda saying we would be killed. We received both good news and bad news letters from our relatives in Tajikistan describing the situation quite positively, as well as false letters from Sherkhan Bandar saying people were being beaten and killed. There were some Tajiks forcibly recruiting people to fight in Tajikistan. Like most of the refugees, I didn't want to fight, so I tried hard to avoid recruitment. They used to come in groups of four or five. There were occasions when they went to Imam Sahib and took men aged between 20 and 40, forced them into trucks and drove them away. You couldn't say no to those people.

Finally I made up my mind to return, after thinking 'What am I doing here?' All my family are in Tajikistan. It's much better to feel the land of Tajikistan under your feet. In Afghanistan, you're always afraid somebody will shoot you. That morning I thought: 'In six days I'll celebrate my birthday in Tajikistan.' I'm just planning to return home and live life as I did before."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 107 (1997)