UNHCR prepares for repatriation after Tajik peace agreement
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) welcomed the Tajikistan peace agreement, signed in Moscow today by the Tajik Government and United Tajik Opposition, and announced it was stepping up preparations in Tajikistan for the return of the remaining Tajik refugees in Afghanistan.
There are still more than 22,300 Tajik refugees in northern Afghanistan. Some 7,300 of the refugees are in a UNHCR-assisted camp near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif and at least 15,000 in Kunduz and Takhar provinces.
All the signs indicate that most, if not all, of the refugees will return in the near future - and UNHCR is planning to boost its operations inside Tajikistan in order to help them settle in. About 1,000 refugees in Kunduz are reported ready to return straight away.
Unfortunately, there are a number of complicating factors hampering the return. Firstly, in Kunduz, fighting between Taliban-affiliated Afghan groups and the forces of the Northern Alliance has been continuing and the situation there remains very tense and uncertain. The fighting has caused a severe shortage of fuel in Kunduz and without fuel, the refugees waiting to repatriate from Kunduz cannot reach the Amu Darya river which marks the border with Tajikistan where UNHCR has a transit centre and a barge waiting to repatriate them. UNHCR will try and procure fuel in Tajikistan and transport it across the river to Kunduz to enable the repatriation to start up soon.
The closure of the border town of Termez in southern Uzbekistan by the Uzbek authorities ten days ago is also presenting problems. Not only would fuel and other materials normally be supplied from UN stockpiles in this important humanitarian hub, but it is also the main transit point for refugees returning from the Mazar-i-Sharif camp. There are no simple alternative routes. Negotiations are taking place between UN officials and the Uzbek authorities in an attempt to resolve this problem.
In case large numbers of refugees rush home over the next few weeks, UNHCR is sending 20,000 blankets overland from Amsterdam, and already has 2,000 pieces of plastic sheeting on standby in Tashkent - so that at least the returnees with destroyed houses will have some temporary shelter.
UNHCR also plans to increase its staff in Tajikistan and to provide materials to rebuild at least 4,,000 destroyed houses belonging to the returning refugees. Between the beginning of 1993 and the summer of 1996 UNHCR provided roofing materials for the reconstruction of some 19,000 houses in Tajikistan, which, together with a strong programme for monitoring the human rights situation of the returnees, enabled over 32,000 returnees from Afghanistan and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people to reintegrate in their home areas in south-west Tajikistan which was the epicentre of the main civil war in 1992.
The Tajik civil war is estimated to have killed more than 30,000 people. It also led to more than 60,000 refugees crossing into Afghanistan and over 600,000 internally displaced people.