Afghan returnees make molehill out of mountains
KABUL, June 6 (UNHCR) - Gul Salam wants to return to Afghanistan, and he won't let mountains stand in his way.
"I have been waiting for this moment for 23 years," said the 60-year-old Afghan refugee before embarking on the long journey from Chitral in northern Pakistan to Kesham in northern Afghanistan.
In terms of physical distance, Chitral is not too far from Kesham. But the two areas are separated by the rugged Hindu Kush mountains, and the lack of direct roads means that it will take about six days to reach Kesham from Chitral by a roundabout route through Peshawar and Kabul.
But that has not daunted Gul Salam, who on Monday joined the first group of 1,150 Afghan refugees to be repatriated from Chitral this year.
"I have never given up the idea of going back, and have been following the situation inside Afghanistan regularly by listening to the BBC radio news. Now I think all of us should go back," said Gul Salam. "We should all be grateful to the people of Chitral for their co-operation when we were in need."
Chitral, a remote valley of natural beauty and cool climate, has long been a second home to refugees from northern Afghanistan. Many of them have settled into the local community, living and working alongside their Pakistani hosts.
The Afghan refugee population in Chitral used to exceed the local population of 40,000. But after 1992, a large number of refugees started returning home. More than 3,000 Afghans repatriated from Chitral last year in two convoys, leaving around 10,000 Afghans in the valley today.
Monday's convoy - which was sent off by UNHCR and Pakistani government officials - included Afghans returning to Kesham and Rostaq districts in Badakhshan province, northern Afghanistan, as well as those going back to Punjshir and Kunar. They are expected to arrive in their home areas on Friday.
Noor-Ud-Din, a 20-year-old Afghan refugee born in exile, said, "I have never seen the place I am heading to, but I have been told by the elders that it is similar to Chitral. I love Chitral and will keep on visiting my Chitrali friends from time to time."
Those who did not join the first convoy are determined to return home within two years. "I wanted to return this year, but the people asked me to stay back and keep teaching the children in the school till next year, when all of us will be repatriating, insh'Allah," said Qari Aman, a 30-year-old school teacher.
Since the beginning of this year, more than 115,000 Afghan refugees have gone home from Pakistan. While the pace of returns has been slow compared to last year, there has been an increase in the number of long-time exiles returning in groups.
Last week, a group of 142 families from Katcha Garhi returned to Afghanistan's Logar province after spending more than 20 years in Pakistan. UNHCR is assisting them by involving non-governmental organisations to establish the basic needs in their abandoned home village in Kandaw.
More group repatriation is expected this year from various camps in Pakistan, which is encouraged by Afghanistan's Ministry of Refugees and Returnees (MoRR) and UNHCR as it is easier to assist the group returnees in their native villages.
In all, more than 158,000 Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland from Pakistan, Iran, and non-neighbouring countries like Russia, India, Malaysia and Zimbabwe so far in 2003. The pace of returns is picking up - in May, the number of returns more than doubled compared to the previous month, bringing the weekly return rate to some 20,000 people.