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Afghan returnees pick up the threads after years in exile

Afghan returnees pick up the threads after years in exile

After years of eking out a living weaving carpets in Pakistan's Punjab province, some Afghan Turkmen refugees recently left for home, convinced that they have the skills and support to survive in Afghanistan.
30 April 2003
An Afghan Turkmen family leaving their half-finished home in Wah near Islamabad.

ATTOCK, Pakistan, April 30 (UNHCR) - It is hard to pick up the threads after years away from home. But a group of Afghan refugees are determined to try, leaving their carpet-weaving jobs in Pakistan to return to Afghanistan.

On Monday, 39 Afghan Turkmen families headed home from Attock, some 70 km west of Islamabad, under a voluntary repatriation programme facilitated by the UN refugee agency. The ethnic Turkmen, known for their carpet-weaving skills for centuries, were among an estimated 45,000 Afghan refugees providing cheap labour for a cottage-based carpet industry in the Punjab city.

Among the recent returnees was Abdul Salam, a Turkmen who arrived in Pakistan six years ago from Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. He used to work in a carpet factory in Attock, earning 70 to 90 rupees (about $1.50) a day. "I want to go back now because things are getting better in Afghanistan. There are many Turkmen leaving Pakistan, so my family decided to leave too," he said.

Another Turkmen, Mohammad Raza, was a daily wage labourer in Attock while his wife worked in a carpet factory. Explaining his decision to return to Afghanistan's Jawzjan province after 10 years, he said, "My brother stayed back in Afghanistan to take care of the family land. Now he has renovated my house and would like me to help him plough our ancestral land."

Within Pakistan's Punjab province, UNHCR has set up repatriation information, registration and departure centres in Attock, Rawalpindi, Mainwali and Lahore to assist refugees keen to return to Afghanistan.

The refugee agency's mobile units are also visiting the provincial towns of Gujarat, Sialkot, Rahim Yar Khan, Jhelum Jhang Multan and Gujranwala.

After 15 years in Pakistan, daily wage labourer Sultan Mohammad recently registered with a UNHCR mobile unit in Wah, a town near Islamabad, to return to Kabul. Pointing towards his home - a half-finished brick building - he said, "I was staying here with two other families here. People don't pay as much as they used to and the police are asking for documents every day. I've had enough of being a refugee. I am going back."

Besides the call of home, some refugees are also leaving due to push factors in Pakistan. Nadir Gul, an old man of 65, trembled when he said that his son was arrested and sent to jail by local police for not possessing legal documents. Now the old man, who cannot walk or see properly, has to fend for himself, his daughter-in-law and five-year-old grandson.

Others are not sure what they will find at home. Before leaving for the Afghan capital, one refugee said, "I don't know if my family home is still standing in Kabul. It was there four years ago when I visited."

Still, many of the Turkmen remain optimistic that they have the skills to survive back home. "We will take whatever opportunity is available there - carpet weaving, farming, anything. After all, Afghanistan is our land and we need to go back," said Afghan refugee Niamat before boarding a bus to Mazar.

Since the start of this year, more than 29,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan - including some 2,000 from Punjab province - have gone home under the UNHCR-facilitated voluntary repatriation initiative. Another over 20,000 Afghans have returned from Iran over the same period.

In all, the agency plans to help 600,000 Afghan refugees return from Pakistan and 500,000 from Iran this year.