Huge Afghan convoy sets off home across the Hindu Kush
CHITRAL, Pakistan, October 6 (UNHCR) - "It may take me ten days to reach my village in Badakhshan. The journey is long - but nothing when compared to 22 long years of refuge spent in a camp," said Afghan elder Maulvi Ahmed Sharif, as he prepared to join nearly 1,000 other people on board a huge convoy of around 100 vehicles setting off from Khairabad refugee camp in Chitral, a mountainous district in the far north-west of Pakistan.
On 29 September, the group of 167 Afghan families left Chitral at the start of an epic journey home across the Hindu Kush mountain range. It is the largest group to return home from Chitral this year under the UN refugee agency's voluntary repatriation programme.
A week later, the convoy is still on the road, taking a long, looping detour via Kunar, Kabul and the Salang tunnel in order to avoid the much shorter direct route back - where there are no roads at all, and never have been.
That much shorter route, which was in use until the UN refugee agency and its partners repaired a key bridge into Kunar, and made other improvements, is an unbelievably rough journey - the type that foreigners write breathless books or articles about. The first repatriation convoys from Chitral used to crawl at snail's pace along rocky tracks over break-neck passes, ford dangerous rivers and encounter numerous hazards and obstacles.
The new route is much longer and much safer - but still a very tough journey. However, Maulvi Ahmed Sharif, like most Afghans who have returned before him, is phlegmatic about it, keeping the perils of the journey ahead in proportion with the long series of hardships encountered by Afghans of his generation. The original flight from Badakhshan in the 1980s, for example, was done entirely on foot or on donkeys and took many of the refugees at least a month, with entire villages travelling together, hoping to escape the attentions of helicopter gunships.
"I came to Pakistan along with my family 22 years ago after the Soviet Union's invasion of our country. I was only twelve years old. When I look back I realize that I have spent a major portion of my life in Pakistan where I got married and had children. But, as I understand, being a refugee is not a permanent thing and I thank God for that," said Sharif.
Around 960 Afghans in a convoy of around 100 vehicles, including dozens of trucks laden with baggage accumulated over two decades, left Chitral to pass through the Arandu border exit point some 80 kilometres south-west of Chitral town.
In addition to providing the standard voluntary repatriation package, UNHCR also decided to help the more vulnerable returnees endure the long journey by providing tents.
"UNHCR gave 48 tents to deserving families that were returning to Badakhshan and Takhar provinces, keeping in mind their long journey," said Kedar Neupane, Head of UNHCR's sub-office in Peshawar.
Afghans returning through the voluntary repatriation programme also get transport assistance ranging from US$ 4 to US$ 37 each, depending on the distance travelled. An additional US$ 12 is given to help them resettle and reintegrate in Afghanistan.
A government of Pakistan census concluded in March 2005 showed that 12,222 Afghans were still living in camps or elsewhere in Chitral (out of just over 3 million living throughout the whole country).
Sharif and his family members started their journey from the camp after being processed by UNHCR mobile teams in Chitral. Taking the winding road outside the scenic northern city, the 100-vehicle convoy had to travel five hours to reach Arandu - the last Pakistani town before the border crossing into Afghanistan's Kunar province.
"Have you seen Habib Ullah?" asked Sharif, before travelling with his truck to the Afghan town of Do Qalam. "Habib Ullah was our refugee village administrator, and we want to thank and say goodbye to him," he said, referring to an official of the Commissioner for Afghan Refugees - the government office responsible for camp management in Pakistan.
"The experience that we had during all our years in Pakistan is memorable. We think there will never be another such excellent example of hospitality towards refugees anywhere in the world," Sharif said, while bidding farewell to Habib Ullah.
Local Pakistanis living next to Khairabad camp said that they considered the Afghans living in the camps like their own people, and there was a sombre feeling in the area after Sharif and the other families decided to repatriate to Afghanistan. "It was like a day of grief for us. Our women, who went to say goodbye to the Afghan women and children, returned crying as they saw their neighbours leave," said Abdul Hayee, standing outside the UNHCR mobile iris centre in the camp.
All Afghans above the age of six going home with UNHCR assistance have to go through an iris test to ensure that they have not previously received the package.
As the long queue of trucks slowly started to move into Afghanistan across a concrete bridge marking the border between the two countries, Pakistanis waved to Afghans perched on the top of the colourful trucks.
"UNHCR built the bridge for 900,000 Pakistani Rupees (around US$ 15,000) as a contribution to both communities. It is remarkable to see that this bridge is like an umbilical link between Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Neupane.
The post-Taliban UNHCR-assisted voluntary repatriation operation for Afghans started in 2002. Since then, more than 2.7 million Afghans have gone home just from Pakistan, and around 4.2 million have returned in all.
By Babar Baloch