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When homecoming could mean heartbreak

When homecoming could mean heartbreak

The decision whether and when to return is a complex one, especially for those who have already fled and returned before.
23 October 2002
Childhood haunt – what remains of Mariam's house in Kabul.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (UNHCR) - Unswayed by her 1.7 million compatriots who have gone home from Pakistan and Iran since March, Nooria Rashid is thinking twice before returning to Afghanistan. After all, she had fled her country twice in the last 10 years, leaving behind a trail of false hopes and heartbreaking memories.

"I will not go back just yet," says Nooria resolutely as she waits in line at the Katcha Gahri Voluntary Repatriation Centre (VRC) in Peshawar, Pakistan, to inquire about her options. The 27-year-old Afghan Tajik refugee has just heard that the camp she has been living in with her mother and younger brother since 1997 is closing down, leaving two options for residents - to repatriate or be relocated to new camps.

"This time, I will consider all my options before going back," she reiterates, adding that she will only consider repatriation when she sees one year of peace in her homeland.

Nooria's reluctance to go back to Afghanistan is the result of the heartbreak she and her family suffered there.

"We were poor for a very long time," she recalls. "My eldest brother was a captain in the army. He was killed in the war between the mujahideen and the Soviets in Afghanistan. My other two brothers were in university when they were taken by force to join the army. They were very young and they died too."

She pauses for a long time before continuing, "Then I started working in a bank during the communist regime. That was in the early 1990s," adding that she also studied to be a teacher at the University of Kabul.

"Our economic condition improved but when security conditions became precarious in the pre-Taliban mujahideen period, we had to seek refuge in Pakistan. I did not want to lose my younger brother too. My mother was devastated when she lost her sons, and she would have died if something happened to her daughter and only remaining son."

Nooria's family stayed in Pakistan for a while and went home as soon as the Taliban took over. "People were saying that there would be no fighting after that, that they would allow women to work with Islamic Hejab, wearing clothes that would cover us completely as dictated by our religion. The first few months, we just had to go to the office at the end of the month to collect our salary. Everyone was so hopeful. They thought that the situation would improve, but it deteriorated instead."

In 1997, Nooria, her mother and her 16-year-old brother had to leave for Pakistan once again when her salary was cut off, she was not allowed to work, and her brother could not find a job as he was young and unskilled.

Over the last five years, the family has settled well in Pakistan - they live in a house in Katcha Gahri camp, and Nooria works for a small non-governmental organisation in the camp. She is reluctant to give up the normal life she has struggled for years to build.

But now that the camp is closing, their future is in limbo. Nooria says she does not want to be relocated as she will lose her job in Peshawar, yet cannot afford to buy a house in the city.

"Almost all my relatives have gone back, but I won't go back for another year," says a determined Nooria.

Then, conceding that life is not perfect outside her homeland, she adds, "If the situation in Afghanistan remains safe through the winter, and our NGO moves to Kabul, then returning would be the wise thing to do."

By Mariam Arzomand
UNHCR Pakistan