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Afghans Make Grueling Trek Home

By Pamela Constable, Washington Post,
Sunday 18 June 2000; A01

CHINAR, Afghanistan - The brightly painted cargo truck rumbled along a dusty desert track, piled with bundles of bedding, sacks of wheat and 24 exhausted people. A mud-walled village appeared around a bend, and suddenly boys and barking dogs were racing alongside the truck, escorting it the last mile home.

Mohammadullah, 36, climbed out of the cab and surveyed the ancestral village he had not seen since 1985, when Soviet rockets sent his family and neighbors running for their lives--and ultimately across the border into Pakistan, where they spent the next 15 years in a rural refugee camp.

In his hand was a large book wrapped in faded blue cloth. He carried it up a footpath to his brother-in-law's house, where he carefully unwrapped it and pressed it to his forehead. Then, standing on the dirt patio, Mohammadullah opened his Koran and searched for a certain verse.

It says that at times a Muslim must leave his home and travel abroad to escape the rule of infidels, said the sinewy, bearded war veteran, who uses one name. Now that time is over for us. I have been gone 15 years, but I have come back to rebuild my house and my garden and my country.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the bloody internal conflict that followed, more than 6 million refugees fled to Pakistan and Iran. Many have since returned home. But at least 2.6 million remain in the two countries, making them one of the largest long-term refugee populations in the world.

Since April, tens of thousands of these refugees have been streaming back into Afghanistan, many sharing the same dream as Mohammadullah. They have been lured by the government's promise of a safe return and by the United Nations' modest inducement of $100, three sacks of wheat and a blue plastic tent for each returning family.

They have also been persuaded to leave by the diminishing welcome in their longtime host countries--a trend that has been building since 1996, when Afghanistan's anarchic civil war ended and the Taliban, a religious militia, took over 90 percent of the country. Now that stable rule has returned to most of Afghanistan, Pakistan, a political ally of the Taliban, and Iran, an Islamic theocracy, are eager to further reduce their refugee burdens. Iran has rounded up thousands of Afghans whose refugee permits have expired, and both countries signed agreements with the United Nations this spring calling for 200,000 Afghans to be voluntarily repatriated.

Much of the Western world views the Taliban as an oppressive and reactionary religious force, and thousands of middle-class Afghans abroad have no desire to live under its severe Islamic system. But many rural refugees come from conservative backgrounds and say they are happy to come home to an orderly, peaceful Islamic state after years of bloodshed and political upheaval.

We don't try to persuade anyone to return; they have to approach us, said Yusuf Hassan, an official of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Islamabad, Pakistan. Some [Western] pressure groups say conditions in Afghanistan are unacceptable for returnees, but if people say they have no fear of persecution and they are tired of being in exile, we will facilitate their return.

In Haripur, a city about 50 miles northwest of Islamabad that is surrounded by wheat fields and refugee villages, 115 Afghan families signed up last week to join a convoy of 28 trucks that would carry 528 people, including Mohammadullah and his family, on the 250-mile trip home to villages scattered across the desert south of Kabul. Each family signed papers stating they were returning of their own free will. They were uneducated rural folk, and their traditions were clearly in tune with the Taliban's strict version of Islam: The women veiled their faces outdoors, the men wore long beards and the elders did not permit photographs of women or girls.

The Taliban do not bother us, they welcome us back, and they have good Islamic values, said Abdul Jamil, 42, who signed up to return to a village called Chakari. Inside his mud house in Haripur, his wife, Semaque, 35, pointed to a head-to-toe veil hanging on the wall. My relatives would never let me go out without it, she said.

But hazards and hardships await these returnees, many of whom are returning to villages that were destroyed and abandoned years ago. Most lack health care, electricity and wells to irrigate the fields. This year, a severe drought has worsened farming and living conditions, and the United Nations has scaled back its current repatriation project because so many villages have no water.

The Taliban government, isolated and bankrupt, can offer little assistance, although it does provide food, medical care and building supplies to returnees who lost a family member fighting the Soviets. Politically, the authorities try to accommodate certain reentry problems; men who arrive with short beards are given time to grow them without risk of arrest.

We welcome all the refugees home. We do what we can to help them, and we guarantee their security, Maulvi Abdul Rakim, the Taliban's minister of martyrs and refugees, said in an interview in Kabul, the capital. Someone might think they have lost some freedom when they come here, but we have just as much freedom as other countries; we are only observing our religious and cultural traditions.

For some returnees, the lack of schools is a major concern. In Pakistan and Iran, their children had access to public education, but in Afghanistan many schools were destroyed years ago, and the Taliban has banned most education for girls older than 12. The United Nations and other aid groups are building classrooms and training teachers in some refugee villages. But many, like this village 20 miles southeast of Kabul, have none.

Land mines are another obstacle to repatriation. Many areas around Kabul were heavily mined by the Soviets or by warring Afghan paramilitary forces. In 1993, when some villagers attempted to return to Chinar, four were killed and 12 others lost limbs when they stepped on mines. Now, after several years of intensive mine clearance, the area has been declared safe.

Finally, there is the threat of renewed fighting. While most of Afghanistan is under Taliban control, armed resistance forces hold positions as close as 30 miles north of Kabul. In Haripur last week, many refugees said they did not want to risk returning until peace was complete and the economy was on surer footing.

None of us will be happy until we are home, but we can't go yet, said Hajji Malang, 32, a former Afghan freedom fighter with a missing thumb whose eight children were born in the Haripur camps. Everything is broken in Afghanistan. We need to go back and rebuild the country. When the fighting stops, I too will go.

Some refugees make periodic trips back to test the waters, to attend a family wedding or to check on a piece of land. Sometimes those who sign up for U.N.-assisted repatriation have no intention of remaining in Afghanistan, but are eager to accept the donated money and wheat. Then, their visit complete, they head back across the busy, porous checkpoints into Pakistan.

For three days before the convoy left Haripur last week, U.N. staff members interviewed each family that had registered, looking for telltale signs of insincerity. Was the whole family planning to go? What belongings were they packing? Were they dismantling their houses to save the beams and windows? Even leaving a teapot behind could signal that the departure was temporary.

Most families passed the test, but one man was disqualified after admitting he had purchased wooden poles to make it appear he was moving his house. Another confessed he was single but had registered to travel with his brother's wife. The caravan was delayed for two days while other families signed up and more cargo trucks were located and rented.

Finally, before dawn on June 9, 28 trucks heaped with chicken coops, children, electric fans, string beds and roof beams chugged out of Haripur and headed north. At noon they crossed the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, where Taliban officials checked their papers and waved them through. By nightfall the refugees were lined up outside the U.N. office in Jalalabad to receive their $100 and sacks of wheat--some of which they would later sell for more cash.

The next morning, the journey resumed at a tortuous crawl. The sun beat down mercilessly on families perched atop their belongings, and the drivers swerved around endless craters in the 110-mile highway to Kabul. Just before reaching the capital, the caravan dispersed and the trucks headed for a dozen villages scattered in the desert.

At Chinar, the welcome awaiting Mohammadullah was heartfelt but meager. It took only minutes for all his family's worldly possessions to be unloaded. Then, while the women and children hid in a back room, his male relatives--who had arrived in an earlier convoy this spring--offered a lunch of bread, potatoes and water.

One brother-in-law, 26, recounted the terrifying night when, as a 5-year-old, he and his family fled the Soviet bombing of Chinar with only the clothes they wore. Now, the men complained, there was still no school or electricity in the village, and 65 percent of the houses were in ruins, including Mohammadullah's. But the wiry war veteran seemed undeterred. He pointed to a new well built by a foreign aid organization, and a new mud-walled mosque near his father-in-law's house.

We had a good life here once, Mohammadullah said. I never forgot my home and my country. Now we have a government that is on the side of the people and on the side of Islam. I want to prepare the ground and plant some trees, almonds and apricots and mulberries. This is my soil and this is where I want to stay.