Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1997
It was a year of turmoil in Afghanistan. The mostly Pashtun Taliban forces battled the opposition Northern Alliance, which includes the country's next three largest ethnic groups, on various fronts and as the year progressed the ethnic divide became increasingly bitter.
Civilians were the main victims of the ongoing conflicts. Since the Taliban captured the Afghan capital of Kabul in September 1996, more than 300,000 people have been displaced, forcibly ejected from their homes or fled, fearing persecution. An additional 50,000 people went to Pakistan and possibly a similar number to Iran.
In contrast, an estimated 85,000 Afghans went home in 1997, a respectable number by global standards, but in the Afghan context the lowest annual return since 1988. In an effort to increase the rate of return UNHCR announced a new, more dynamic strategy called 'targeted group repatriation' which will run parallel to the existing assistance programme that has benefited 2.5 million of the nearly four million Afghans who have already returned from Pakistan and Iran.
The project identifies specific groups of refugees in Pakistan who are keen to return to relatively peaceful districts in Afghanistan, but cannot do so because of particular obstacles such as the presence of mines, destroyed infrastructure or lack of job opportunities. These problems are evaluated with the help of the refugees and then UNHCR, other UN agencies and NGOs design a package to tackle the specific hurdles.
By autumn, 10 districts had been designated as pilot projects and advance parties returned to two of them. A convoy of 308 refugees, subsidized and escorted by UNHCR, arrived in mid-September in Tizin, a remote string of destroyed villages 50 miles south-west of Kabul where families were given tents and building materials and cooperating agencies undertook a series of support projects. Elders of the remaining 30,000 Tizin refugees in Pakistan said more people would return home in Spring following encouraging reports from the returnees.
A second convoy of 558 refugees left Chitral in northern Pakistan on September 27. The journey home was expected to take four days. It took nine. Twelve heavily loaded trucks and a UNHCR escort struggled over disintegrating tracks, crossed a 4,600 metre pass, forded rivers, endured a snow storm and numerous breakdowns and had some tense encounters with armed fighters before reaching their destination in Keshim district, one of the most fertile and prosperous river valleys in the northern Afghan province of .
Homecoming, however, was a bitter-sweet affair. Hundreds of relatives, alerted by a BBC radio report, lined the road into Keshim to welcome the convoy and men loosed off thousands of celebratory rounds of semi-automatic and machine-gun fire. The following morning, rival local commanders fought a gunbattle in the main bazaar, leaving seven dead. Although the returnees were not involved in the fighting, it provided a stark reminder that the decision to return to anywhere in Afghanistan, even to somewhere as relatively well-off as Keshim, can never be taken lightly.