Famous Pakistan camp closes as last convoy heads home
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, May 21 (UNHCR) - In the latest landmark event related to Afghanistan, the 22-year-old Nasir Bagh camp in Pakistan - probably the most famous refugee camp in the world - is due to close today as a last convoy of refugees returns to their homeland. This boosts the total number of Afghan returnees since March 1 to over 661,000.
Nasir Bagh was set up as a tented camp in 1980 as the first wave of Afghan refugees fled the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It soon grew into what was in effect a full-blown suburb of the Pakistani border city of Peshawar. Almost every famous politician and statesman who ever visited Peshawar went to Nasir Bagh camp, along with thousands of journalists, researchers and other visitors. Among its best-known guests were former US Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush, and European Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl.
More recent visitors included former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who issued a fierce condemnation of the Taliban's treatment of women after visiting the camp. During the Taliban years, Nasir Bagh's main girls' school became the largest school for Afghan girls in the world, with more than 3,000 eager students.
Nasir Bagh provided a home for many of Afghanistan's professionals, not just during the 10-year Soviet occupation, but also during subsequent waves of refugees fleeing the civil war and anarchy that broke out in 1993, and the conquest of Jalalabad and Kabul by the Taliban in 1996.
At its peak, Nasir Bagh was home to more than 100,000 Afghan refugees. In 1992, after the fall of the Soviet-backed communist government, around half the camp's population left in just a few months as Afghans went home in huge numbers, believing the fighting was finally over. A year later, new refugees began setting up in the vacated areas of the camp as fierce factional fighting broke out in the Afghan capital, Kabul, destroying large swathes of the city.
Under the joint Afghanistan Interim Administration/UNHCR repatriation programme launched on March 1 this year, more than 661,000 Afghans have returned home. Of these, 594,000 have returned from Pakistan, 47,000 from Iran and just under 10,000 from Tajikistan. Smaller numbers have also gone back from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and India.
More than 160,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have been helped home by the Afghan Ministry of Repatriation, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. Last week, the UN refugee agency completed the transport of more than 15,500 IDPs from Hesar Shahi camp near Jalalabad to their homes in four neighbouring provinces, including Kabul.
Hesar Shahi was set up by UNHCR on a bleak and barren plain in early 1994 to cater to some of the tens of thousands of people fleeing the fighting in Kabul. By the end of that year, it held more than 100,000 people, although many subsequently moved on to Peshawar - and Nasir Bagh camp - as the situation in Afghanistan continued to spiral downwards. With the latest organised returns, the population of Hesar Shahi has now shrunk to less than 1,500 Afghans from the north of the country, for whom return is still relatively problematic.
UNHCR hopes to help 1.2 million Afghan refugees and IDPs return home this year. In order to help returning refugees and displaced people restart their lives, the refugee agency plans to help construct or repair some 96,000 buildings, which will benefit more than 500,000 people. These include some 29,000 houses in the rural areas worst affected by fighting and Taliban's scorched-earth tactics. Agreements have been signed or are being finalised with more than 15 non-governmental organisations, which will implement the shelter programme across the country.