Afghan refugees arrive home from Kyrgyzstan

Thirty-three Afghan refugees from Kyrgyzstan have returned to Afghanistan in the first organised repatriation of Afghans from a non-bordering country.

Two of the first group of 33 Afghan returnees from Kyrgyzstan.   © © UNHCR/A.Burkutov

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan, June 5 (UNHCR) - Thirty-three Afghan refugees from Kyrgyzstan arrived home today in the first organised repatriation of Afghans from a non-bordering country. Preparations are underway to repatriate a second group of 30 refugees soon.

"They were so anxious to go home that they would have returned even without an assistance package," said James Lynch, who heads UNHCR in Kyrgyzstan. "Their wish to return was so strong that it wouldn't have been dimmed by a lack of relief aid inside Afghanistan."

The UN refugee agency provided the returnees with transport and helped organise transit visas for the two-day journey that started Monday from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek and passed through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan before arriving Wednesday in Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan.

"Although there were only 33 persons, this operation took a lot of planning," said Lynch. "We are still dealing with the legacies of the former Soviet Union. Some of the frontier authorities are not easy, and this group had to cross three international borders. In all, four countries were involved, so it took quite a bit of co-ordination."

Besides granting the transit visas, the migration agencies in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also accompanied the refugees while passing through their territory to ensure their unimpeded passage and safety.

"Today is one of the happiest days in my life," said Afghan returnee Said Burhan before leaving Bishkek. He and his fellow returnees, who had been living in exile in Kyrgyzstan for four to six years, are receiving aid and 150 kg of food upon their return to Afghanistan.

There are some 2,000 Afghans in Kyrgyzstan, 800 of whom have official refugee status. So far, more than 100 have expressed their desire to return home and take an active part in the reconstruction process.

"Many among the first group of returnees are prominent people in their communities," said Lynch. "For example, one has been assigned responsibility for transportation matters in his home region, while another has been selected to take part in the upcoming Loya Jirga process."

He added, "This has already been deemed a success by the Afghan community. We've got another 30 people approaching us now."