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Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - The biggest caseload in the world

Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - The biggest caseload in the world
Refugees (108, II - 1997)

1 June 1997
It remains the single largest refugee crisis in the world, though the international community at large often ignores or forgets about the problem. At its height, there were more than six million exiles from Afghanistan in surrounding countries. Today, UNHCR, other international agencies and governments are still caring for 2.7 million refugees, as well as countless other internally displaced persons

There were more than six million exiles from Afghanistan in surrounding countries. Today, UNHCR, other international agencies and governments are still caring for 2.7 million refugees, as well as countless other internally displaced persons

By Rupert Colville

Shortly after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a village called Rozay Qala was blitzed out of existence. At the time, Momin Gul was a farmer in his early thirties, living with his extended family and he recalls: "A mujahed [resistance fighter] was hiding in the village. Soviet troops came to find him. He shot one of them. After this, they opened fire indiscriminately, killing more than 300 villagers in a single day."

A rocket hit Momin Gul's uncle's house. "We all wanted to go and see what had happened to the house and its inhabitants, but our parents wouldn't let us. Only my father went to help. When he returned, he sat in a corner. The only word he would utter was 'Nothing ... nothing,'" Momin Gul said. "I woke in the night and heard my mother and father weeping. Nobody had survived. The entire family disappeared in dust and ashes. The poor souls were burnt alive."

The story of Momin Gul's uncle and his family is tragically commonplace in Afghanistan. Thousands of other Afghan villages similar to Rozay Qala were partially or utterly destroyed during the 10-year Soviet occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans were killed. During the eight years of civil war that have followed the Soviet withdrawal, that figure has probably risen to more than one million dead, with hundreds of thousands more permanently disabled.

By the end of 1979, 400,000 Afghans had fled to Pakistan and another 200,000 to Iran. By the end of the following year, the total number of Afghan refugees had risen to 1.9 million - the biggest single group of refugees in the world. As the country developed into the last and worst of the Cold War proxy battlefields, the numbers of refugees kept climbing. From 1985 to 1990, when they finally peaked at a staggering 6.2 million in Iran and Pakistan alone, Afghan refugees consistently supplied just under half the world's total refugee population.

In 1997, with 2.7 million remaining in Iran, Pakistan and other countries in the region, Afghans have the unhappy distinction of remaining UNHCR's biggest single refugee caseload in the world for the 17th year in succession.

Since October 1979, UNHCR alone has spent well over one billion dollars on Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and another $150 million in Iran. The World Food Programme spent nearly $1.4 billion for Afghan refugees in Pakistan alone and billions more were spent in bilateral humanitarian aid by governments to other international agencies, local and foreign NGOs and by the host countries themselves. Nobody knows how many billions were spent on fighting the war by the Soviet Union on the one side, and a broad spectrum of Western, Middle Eastern and Asian governmental adversaries on the other - but the total is astronomical. Times are changing, however, and this year, by contrast, aid agencies are struggling to keep their programmes going.

The Afghans, of course, paid the highest price, and are still paying, with fighting continuing and their country in ruins.

"During the 1980s, the open-door policy of both Iran and Pakistan, and their treatment of the refugees, was exemplary," said Sri Wijeratne, who met his first Afghan refugees in February, 1980 in a sandstorm in Baluchistan. He has since returned as UNHCR's current Chief of Mission for Afghanistan. "The example of Pakistan and Iran should be studied very carefully by many countries who try to shut up shop when confronted with refugee caseloads a fraction of the size of the Afghans," Wijeratne said. "Both countries ended up with over three million Afghan refugees, and both countries responded with a generosity of spirit that has not been paralleled since."

In Iran, only a small percentage - around 20,000 people - are currently housed in camps. The vast majority have been allowed to mix freely in Iranian society and for many years benefited from state education, medical facilities and access to employment. One result of this has been a significant improvement in the status of Afghan women in Iran, both in their own eyes and those of their male relatives. The peer pressure of Iranian society, where most girls go to school and many women work, had an unquestionably beneficial effect on the Afghans.

In Pakistan, most of the refugees were lodged in refugee "villages." As the name suggests, these were different to most refugee camps around the world, in that although they were initially set up like camps, they were not closed off from the outside world. The Afghans were allowed to move freely in and out of the refugee villages, to find work and set up businesses.

The result, in both Pakistan and Iran, was that despite the length of their exile, the Afghan refugees have avoided the danger of permanent dependency. Nowadays, the vast majority are completely self-sufficient. It is to their enormous credit, that, when food aid was progressively reduced from 1992 onwards in Pakistan, and finally cut off altogether in 1995 (except for the most vulnerable cases), the Afghans created very little fuss and got on with making the best they could of their lives.

Nevertheless, the fact that large number of rural Afghans - most of whom originated from small villages where everyone was part of the same extended family - were congregated together in the refugee villages in Pakistan, helped reinforce the practice of purdah. Whereas a woman would have gone out quite freely in her home village, with her face uncovered, to work in the fields or visit her neighbours, in the refugee villages she was surrounded by strangers, and became much more confined to her family's compound for fear of endangering the all-important family honour. In addition, local attitudes to women in North West Frontier Province [NWFP] and Baluchistan were similar to those in rural Afghanistan, with the result that Afghan women in Pakistan did not benefit from liberalizing social pressures in the same way as their cousins in Iran.

In general, the refugees in Pakistan were treated with tremendous generosity both by the government and the local population (particularly in NWFP where the majority of the Afghans and the majority of the local population belonged to the same Pashtun ethnic group). By the late 1980s, there were more than 350 refugee villages - some more like small cities - mostly scattered throughout NWFP and Baluchistan, with a relatively small proportion in the other two Pakistani provinces of Sind and Punjab.

The amount of land utilized by the refugees, and the strain they placed on Pakistan's infrastructure, were tremendous. Dozens of UN and other international agencies, local NGOs and governments quickly put into place what was at the time the biggest emergency aid operation in history. Because of its poor relations with western countries and a variety of other reasons, Iran received much less international assistance. In fact, Teheran did not even ask for any external aid until 1986. "To its credit," said Wijeratne, "this did not prevent Iran from continuing to welcome and support the Afghans fleeing western and northern areas of Afghanistan. The Islamic tradition of asylum no doubt helped both Iran and Pakistan to receive and protect the world's largest refugee group despite the incalculable national economic and social costs."

Deputy High Commissioner Gerald Walzer was Chief of Mission in Islamabad in 1982-84 and recalls: "As many as 150,000 people were arriving each month at that time. Providing even the most basic life-saving and life-sustaining aid was a tremendous challenge." The Pakistan government, in a gesture Walzer has never seen repeated, allowed the World Food Programme to draw down the country's own national food stocks to feed the incoming tide

of people. Even so, there were periods when the aid agencies were 150,000 metric tons below their needs. UNHCR at the time did not have its own emergency section or the invaluable experience gained in later operations, such as in the Gulf, and Walzer said working closely with ICRC, WFP, UNICEF and many NGOs had been imperative for the success of the mission.

Refugees started to return home even before the last Soviet soldier left Afghan soil, but when the communist government finally fell three years later in April 1992, the trickle turned into a flood. There was a huge surge of collective optimism which resulted in no fewer than 1.2 million Afghans returning from Pakistan within six months - all of them assisted by an extremely stretched UNHCR. Another 300,000 returned spontaneously from Iran during the same period.

The period between the Soviet withdrawal and the outbreak of civil war in 1993 represented a lost opportunity, though the political seeds of failure had probably been sown much earlier because of the greed and opportunism of the competing mujahedeen groups and the manipulations of their foreign backers.

Between 1992 and 1996, resistance factions, joined later by the Taliban, locked themselves into a kaleidoscopic power struggle that resulted in the obliteration of huge swathes of southern and eastern Kabul and considerable damage to much of the rest of the city on a scale that even Beirut and Sarajevo veterans can scarcely believe. Afghanistan's own uncompromising leaders were primarily responsible for Kabul's destruction, but the Soviets also laid waste to huge areas and were responsible for the millions of mines that still litter the Afghan countryside.

Large population movements have been as unpredictable as the conflict itself. Even while fighting continued in Kabul, many rural refugees returned to the country, albeit in diminishing numbers. If that development was encouraging there have, however, been more recent new displacements of mostly internal groups.

It is a tribute to the Afghans' extraordinary resilience that very few of the almost four million returnees have fled the country a second time - although an unknown, but probably quite large, number have been displaced within Afghanistan after returning from exile abroad. The people displaced between January and August 1997 from the strategic Shomali Valley area north of Kabul probably include a large number of former refugees, since parts of Shomali were carpet-bombed by the Soviets in the early 1980s. Other parts were deliberately depopulated by the Soviet army and their Afghan communist counterparts to make it more difficult for mujahedeen to launch hit-and-run attacks on military convoys arriving from the north.

A similar mixture of fighting and forced depopulation by the Taliban had, by late July, led to the displacement of over 200,000 people - almost the entire population of the region - into Kabul or the north of the country. This was a particularly tragic example of history repeating itself given all the hard work the returnees had undertaken to rebuild their homes and bring their fields and orchards back into production.

The scale of the return - a total of 3.9 million people by 1997 - is astonishing, like the scale of almost everything to do with Afghanistan. "In 1996," said Sri Wijeratne, "everyone was very disappointed, because only 120,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan. This represented the second lowest annual return since 1988, but it is still an extremely large number of people!"

In Iran, by contrast, repatriation has totally collapsed. During the 20 months leading up to the Taliban capture of the western Afghan city of Herat in September 1995, some 200,000 refugees had returned from Iran with UNHCR assistance. According to the Iranian government another 200,000 returned spontaneously. Over the following 20 months, fewer than 10,000 have gone back. This would indicate a massive vote of no-confidence in the mainly Pushto-speaking Taliban by the mainly Dari-speaking refugees in Iran. The Pushto-speakers, who feel much more comfortable with the Taliban, mainly fled to Pakistan.

Why would anyone want to go back to a country in such a terrible state of decay, particularly when a war is still raging on several fronts? At best, Afghanistan has an extremely uncertain future, with peace apparently an ever-receding speck on the horizon. Not surprisingly, many Afghan refugees prefer to consolidate their lives in their asylum country for the time being.

Momin Gul, for one, is not in a hurry. He has thought many times of returning to Rozay Qala, he says, but the situation is too unstable at present. He would like to be re-united with his elderly parents, who never left, despite the fate of his uncle. But what about his children? Should he return, completely uprooting his family for a second time after 17 years? A farmer by origin and inclination, he would prefer to concentrate for the moment on his business of buying plastic goods in Lahore which he then resells in Peshawar. The income this brings him is barely enough to get by on, but at least he knows he can get by on it. At the moment he's more inclined to move deeper inside Pakistan, to Punjab, than to Afghanistan: "Life in Pakistan is difficult, but life in Afghanistan may turn out to be miserable." There are hundreds of thousands of Momin Guls, facing similar dilemmas.

There are also hundreds of thousands of Hajji Mohammeds. Like Momin Gul, Hajji Mohammed also left Afghanistan 17 years ago, after his village in Paktia was attacked by Soviet planes and ground forces. Now he has decided to go home, along with his wife, two divorced sons and six unmarried daughters. "We are not natives of this place," he says grandly. "There's a Pashtun saying that 'If you are a king, but outside your homeland, you are no better than a beggar.'" He's satisfied with the security situation in Taliban-held Paktia: "Last year, there were problems between different groups in Paktia. Now it's better with the Taliban."

His family is benefitting from a UNHCR-funded group repatriation scheme which is becoming popular with refugees in Pakistan. It brings some extra benefits such as transportation allowances, on top of the standard repatriation package, and targeted projects in the returnees' home villages. The presence of aid agency escorts also means that the returning refugees don't have to pay bribes at the series of checkpoints separating the refugee villages from the border. Such extortion has led some returnees to pay twice as much as their repatriation allowance before they have even set foot on Afghan soil. For many refugees this could be a deciding economic factor in whether or not to return. In 1997, hundreds of returning families which were not beneficiaries of the group repatriations have piggy-backed on the group repatriation convoys for precisely this reason.

UNHCR plans to expand the group repatriation project considerably through 1998, concentrating on locating villages, or even entire districts, to which the former inhabitants are keen to return, providing certain inhibiting factors are solved. Other UN agencies and NGOs will also be invited to help target a range of activities at such groups once their needs have been identified. Village elders, many of whom, like Momin Gul and Hajji Mohammed, were young men when they left their home country, are already being taken to visit their home areas to discuss their people's particular needs with UNHCR staff.

Hajji Mohammed has asked hopefully for a tractor. Since he's relatively rich, and funding doesn't stretch to lavish gifts for individuals, he's unlikely to get one. But his daughter and several other women from his home village have learned a skill, tailoring, and received business training from the NGO operating the group repatriation scheme. She will receive a set of tools and follow-up training back home in Gardez. That is one reason why Hajji Mohammed, his family, and many of his neighbours have decided that 1997 will, after all, and in spite of everything, be the year they finally return to rebuild their village and their lives.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)