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Afghans refugees face hard choices as old Pakistan camp closes

Afghans refugees face hard choices as old Pakistan camp closes

The Pakistani government is closing Katcha Garhi camp, one of its oldest camps for Afghan refugees, at the end of March. Close to 60,000 residents must decide whether to go home or to relocate in Pakistan on their own.
25 March 2003
A young refugee at Katcha Garhi, one of the oldest camps in Pakistan for Afghans.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan, March 25 (UNHCR) - Close to 60,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan are facing a tough choice - to go home or to go it alone in their adopted country when one of Pakistan's oldest camps for Afghans closes at the end of March.

The government of Pakistan has announced it is closing Katcha Garhi camp on the outskirts of Peshawar by March 30 for redevelopment. Residents of the camp, some of whom have been here since it opened in 1980, have two options: to return to Afghanistan or to move elsewhere in Pakistan on their own.

"We just got another notice for eviction," sighs Afghan refugee Rehm-u-din, who lives and works in half-demolished Charmaro, a small sector in Katcha Garhi. "It is so difficult to leave this camp. Where would I go? There seems to be no hope any more."

Rehm-u-din arrived in 1981 and now heads a family of 10 at the camp, which has a population of 59, 220. When asked if he would consider repatriation, he says, "It is not the time. When I left Afghanistan, we were five brothers and my father owned a small piece of land. Now I have two sons who are married, and five daughters. I do not have a house or job to go back to. The land is under dispute. My sons do not know anything about farming. They earn a living through carpentry here."

Many of the Afghans at Katcha Garhi have gone through vocational training in carpentry, stone-carving or tailoring. They make a humble living with their skills at a nearby market.

"My country is heaven to me. I will definitely go back," adds Rehm-u-din, who hails from Nando village in northern Afghanistan's Faryab province. "But I am waiting till I am sure that we will not die of hunger at home."

He wishes he could stay a few more years at Katcha Garhi, where his younger children are attending school and health care is readily available.

Afghan refugee Rehm-u-din will be sad to leave his house in Charmaro, Katcha Garhi camp.

But for camp mate Yasin Ali, home was the obvious choice. A former soldier who fled Taliban-controlled Kabul, he arrived in Katcha Garhi in 1997 and made a living selling boiled eggs at a nearby bus station.

"I used to look at the hundreds of faces of the arrivals from Kabul and that gave me an idea about the conditions back home," he said.

He must have liked what he saw at the bus station, because he recently decided to go back to Afghanistan after spending six years at the camp. He had wanted to repatriate last year, but could not find a suitable place for his family in Afghanistan. In February, he went to Kabul again and found a job and a two-room house in Guzargah.

Explaining his decision to leave Pakistan, he said, "The rent for two-room houses in Peshawar is more than 2,000 rupees. I prefer to pay the same amount to an Afghan and live in Kabul."

Ali was among the first group of Afghan refugees to leave Katcha Garhi for home with the start of the spring repatriation season in early March.

Last year, the majority of Afghan returnees came from urban areas in Pakistan. This year, the UN refugee agency's focus is on assisting repatriation from the more than 200 camps in the country. In all, UNHCR plans to help some 600,000 Afghans return home from Pakistan this year.

By Maryam Arzomand and Mohammad Ayub Khawreen
UNHCR Pakistan