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Afghan refugee leaves Pakistan hoping to start a new life


Afghan refugee leaves Pakistan hoping to start a new life

After three years in Pakistan, Shah Wali is set to return home to Afghanistan hoping to resume a shepherd's life he had known before. Around 82,000 Afghans who came to Pakistan following 9/11 and the U.S.-led war against the Taliban have gone back to Afghanistan.
6 September 2004
Shah Wali sits in a truck with his wife and children before departure from Chaman in Pakistan for Aghanistan.

QUETTA, Pakistan, Sept. 6 (UNHCR) - Shah Wali, 32, is all set to leave the UNHCR Departure Centre at Pakistan's border town of Chaman. An Afghan refugee for three years in one of Pakistan's so-called "new camps," he has decided to return to his country and try to rebuild the life he once had there.

"I know that starting all over again is going to be tough," he said. "I was a shepherd in Zabul and raised goats and sheep for a living. I am returning with the hope that I can resume that again, but without the help of the government and other agencies that's just not possible."

Around 82,000 Afghan refugees have returned home from 15 temporary camps in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent weeks. The "new camps" were established in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan to house around 200,000 Afghans who arrived in the area in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and the U.S.-led coalition's intervention in Afghanistan.

As a shepherd in Zabul, Shah Wali led a simple life. "The day began with a prayer, then after having a cup of tea and a piece of leftover bread from the overnight dinner, I set out to graze my livestock in the mountains to return in the late afternoons. We were doing fine but the war disrupted our life and we had to come to one of the refugee camps in Balochistan."

Although life in the refugee camp was tough, Shah Wali also had moments of joy. "I came here with a daughter of three months old and God gave me another one a year and half back. Our Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) says that daughters are blessings of God. So I am blessed with two of them."

Earlier this year, UNHCR, the World Food Programme and the government of Pakistan jointly decided to withdraw assistance to these temporary camps, which are mainly located in remote areas where it was difficult and expensive to support. There were also increasing security concerns because of their proximity to the unstable border region of Afghanistan. The decision reflected the original intent of the camps, which were meant as emergency sites which would not become permanent.

UNHCR subsequently announced an enhanced repatriation package for Afghan refugees volunteering to return to Afghanistan. The package includes three months of food and a tent in addition to a travel allowance of $3 to $30, depending on the distance, and $8 per person.

Shah Wali decided to take the option of assisted repatriation. He goes back with hopes of a better future for Afghanistan, and one of the first things he plans to do once he is back home is to take part in his country's upcoming elections.

"Afghanistan has seen much bloodshed throughout these 25 years of war. Now, what it requires is an elected head of the state and an elected government so that it can come back to normalcy," he said, adding that he would register for voting as soon as he arrived, as he desperately wants to cast his vote for the candidate of his choice. "I think this is a national duty," he said.

Shah Wali considers himself lucky to be able to move back to his place of origin in Afghanistan. "I am happy that I opted to take the enhanced repatriation package which with other things will also give me food for three months. But in our camp there were refugees who cannot go back if they don't have security."

Shah Wali is referring to a large number of Pashtun Afghan refugees from the northern parts of Afghanistan who do not consider this to be the right time to move back to their places of origin.

"We left our houses because of the strong warlords who compelled us to come out of our homes and become refugees. And these warlords and the insecure conditions are still there. So it's very hard for us to go back right now," said Haji Mohammad Ismail from Jawzjan province of Afghanistan.

Kwame Boafo, Head of UNHCR Sub Office in Quetta, said that UNHCR is working with the Pakistani authorities to find a way to continue to assist those "new camp" refugees who cannot repatriate. "Many Afghans have taken up the UNHCR offer of an enhanced repatriation package for the residents of new camps and have gone back to Afghanistan. UNHCR is in discussions with the Government to identify the best solutions for those others who for genuine reasons may not be able to repatriate to Afghanistan in the immediate future."

More than half of the refugees that were in the new camps in NWFP have opted for the enhanced repatriation package - 39,000 out of 65,000 refugees.

Of the six camps in Balochistan, housing a total population of some 127,000 refugees, 43,000 have voluntarily repatriated by early September. Processing of those who want to return to Afghanistan is still ongoing in that province.

More than 340,000 Afghan refugees have repatriated from Pakistan, including the new camps, since early 2004. The facilitated voluntary repatriation programme for Afghan refugees runs until March 2006 under a tripartite agreement between UNHCR and the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since the programme began in 2002, some 2.25 million Afghans have been assisted in returning home.

By Babar Baloch in Quetta, Pakistan