It has been 30 years since a young Afghan woman draped in a pomegranate red shawl stared back at the world from a glossy National Geographic cover.
Recently, as she languished in a Peshawar prison days before her unceremonious deportation, another photo emerged — this one starkly different. It was a hazy photograph before her court hearing in Peshawar. The sparkle of those beautiful eyes was gone and her jaundiced skin betrayed fatigue and pain — hallmarks of her years spent as an outsider in Pakistan.
Her crime: An illegal attempt to obtain an ID card that would allow her to be a citizen of Pakistan, the country that has been her home longer than Afghanistan.
Sharbat Gula was one of the nearly two million of Afghans still living in Pakistan, after escaping a homeland obliterated by violence. “Afghanistan is only my birthplace, but Pakistan was my homeland,” she said in one interview. Yet, Pakistan never accepted Gula as her own.
And so, dressed in a distinct cobalt blue burka, she left for Torkham border — for home — on Nov 8; her eyes hidden behind a lattice veil that made her indistinguishable from the thousands of Afghans being ‘repatriated’ from Pakistan.
Much like the life of this woman, arrests, forced payment of bribes, violence, harassment and intimidation are everyday features in the life of Afghans living in Pakistan.
Back in Afghanistan too things have changed over the years. Abdur Jabbar, another Afghan-origin man who until recently lived in Pakistan, is back living in Jalalabad. Aged 70, he had to leave Pakistan after spending 40 years in the country. Many like him came back to Afghanistan only to find that their houses were either destroyed by war or were occupied by someone else. Abdul is also concerned for his children. “They used to make a good living selling vegetables and fruits in Peshawar, but they are yet to find anything here,” he says.
Each day in the life of these Afghans is a struggle. These are their stories.
‘When I told the doctor that my son is dying, he advised me to go seek treatment for him in Pakistan’
By Nasir Khan
Pakistan’s image is more tainted than celebrated in most countries. Yet to Afghans, Pakistan is a place with an enviable healthcare system. Owing to the poor quality of healthcare in Afghanistan, Afghan patients often look towards India and Pakistan when in need of medical assistance.
Until recent clashes at the Torkham border, “Half of the patients [at our hospital] were Afghan,” Tariq Khan, director administration of the Rehman Medical Institute had told Dawn in July 2016. “But now we attend up to 400 patients, only 100 of whom are Afghans,” he said.
The very promise of better medical facilities drew Rabia, a young Afghan woman, to Quetta with a desperate hope to find care for her ailing two-year-old.
“Go to Pakistan,” a doctor told her when she took her little Musawir to a 24-hour hospital in Kunduz.
Her boy, Musawir, had been battling debilitating health issues since birth. “He had always been weak and never wanted to drink my milk,” she said in an interview.
Consultations with several doctors in her hometown of Kunduz, Afghanistan, ended in disappointment.
“They tried many treatments, and I thought his condition would improve but his health continued to deteriorate.”
“Go to Pakistan,” a doctor told her when she took her little Musawir to a 24-hour hospital in Kunduz. Thinking that her son was dying, she agreed.
Despite being barely able to make ends meet, her husband, a farmer, made the arrangements for their journey. He sent Rabia and Musawir to Pakistan.
“He was afraid that we might run into trouble with the authorities if he was with us,” she said. “It is easier for women.”
The family sold their only goat, enabling Rabia and her baby to travel from Kunduz to Kabul — the journey took nearly six hours by car. The following day they moved towards Kandahar, which was over 500 kilometres away. After travelling over 200 kilometres more, they were finally in Quetta.
A rude shock awaited the mother and her ailing son after the taxing journey. “They [doctors] were asking for a lot of money and I had already spent everything I had to travel here.”
She was told her son needed a blood transfusion immediately. Alone and without any resources, Rabia broke down. Her husband comforted her over the phone, asking her to have faith.
Soon they found a solution. She got to a hospital run by a non-governmental organisation, where her son received treatment free of charge.
“Musawir is getting better, but I do not know if he will be healthy. I am so tired,” she said.
Two days after this interview, Musawir tragically passed away; he was suffering from malnutrition and severe sepsis.
‘We doubt your marriage’
By Malik Achakzai
What is home? Is it a place or a state of mind? For some it may be the country where they are born, for many it is the country where their family resides.
To 45-year-old Farida Siddiqi, home is Pakistan — the country where she lives with her husband and two children.
But the state does not recognise her as a citizen.
When she presented her nikahnama to Nadra officials to apply for a Pakistani identity card, she was looked at with suspicion.
“Dozens of female Afghan refugees fake a marriage in order to get a CNIC. We cannot process your request because we are not convinced your marriage is legitimate,” she was told.
Nadra provides CNICs to individuals who can provide documentary evidence that at least one parent is Pakistani.
No law in their favour
Citizenship for Afghan refugees and migrants, or their descendants has long been a contentious issue. According to the Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951, anyone born in Pakistan is a national by birth, except those whose parents are ‘aliens’ — someone “who is not citizen of Pakistan”.
Furthermore, Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor to its 1967 additional protocol. As such, according to the Pakistani government, it is not obligated to “facilitate the assimilation and naturalisation of refugees.”
Pakistan is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor to its 1967 additional protocol.
A Proof of Registration (PoR) card is issued to registered refugees, allowing them to stay as “Afghan citizen[s] temporarily residing in Pakistan”.
In the aftermath of the attacks on APS and Bacha Khan University by the Taliban, Afghan refugees, who are mostly Pashtun, came under fire and scrutiny. The now two-year-old National Action Plan, a blueprint for Pakistan’s anti-terrorism strategy, calls for “comprehensive policy … for registration of Afghan refugees”, raising distrust and suspicion.
More than registration, the government is keen on expelling refugees — a process initiated long before the APS attacks.
Working in tandem with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Afghan government, the goal of both these strategies was to slowly send refugees back to Afghanistan.
After the APS attack, the government sought to hasten the process and announced that the PoRs would expire in 2015 and all Afghan refugees would have to leave.
Soon, however, the government decided to extend the PoR until the end of 2016. And later another stay extension was given until March 2017.
‘How can I leave my children and husband behind, and move out of Pakistan?
By Sirajuddin and Abdur Rauf Yousafzai
Days of Pakistani women married to Afghan men, living in Pakistan, are rife with uncertainty. On another such day, many of these women stage a protest in Peshawar against the deportation of their husbands.
“Humara saath do Saddar Mian Nawaz Sharif, Khuda ke liyeh” [For God’s sake, support us Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif], reads one of the many placards they hold.
One of the women at the protest is Razia, a mother of six who is married to an Afghan refugee since 1992. After over 20 years of a happy marriage, the future of her marriage is now plunged in uncertainty.
While Razia refuses to move to Afghanistan, her husband does not have much choice in the matter. The crackdown against Afghan refugees in Pakistan means the family will have to split.
“I am Pakistani, my children are Pakistanis, they are born and raised here,” she tells Dawn.com.
“The higher ups are not listening to us,” she sighs.
Nausheen Bibi remembers in vivid detail the wretched day she lost her brother — a militia fighter battling USSR troops — when she was just three years old.
37 years later, the memory continues to make her shudder. Her only pleasant childhood memories are from the time her family managed to flee her troubled hometown of Kunduz for Pakistan.
And so began her life in Peshawar, where she lived with her family in the city’s Androon Shehr.
Years later, a young Pakistani man was in the area to meet his aunt, when he saw Nausheen — and surely she saw him. “He had a very attractive personality,” she says timidly. It was love at first sight.
With nervous glances, she says, “Mung dwanara raza wo [we both agreed on the marriage],” and so with their family’s consent the couple tied the knot.
They have three daughters and two sons. The oldest is in college; the youngest is four.
Nausheen’s children were born in Peshawar; her in-laws and husband are Pakistani — yet, she is not.
“I cannot even think about leaving Pakistan,” she says, “How can I leave my children and husband behind?”
“Do you think that my kids would get the kind of education and health facilities in Afghanistan that they do here?”
“The government cannot separate our family,” the mother says, embracing her youngest daughter.
She worries about what kind of future her children would have if they had to move to Afghanistan. “Do you think that my kids would get the kind of education and health facilities in Afghanistan that they do here?” she asks, further predicting that, “I do not see peace returning to the country in the next 50 years.”
Ironically, her Pakistani husband does not live in the country. He works in Saudi Arabia and sends back money to support his family.
To Nausheen, Pakistan and Afghanistan are both part of her identity, “I cannot differentiate between Afghanistan and Pakistan. I was born there, but I flourished here.”
During the winters the UNHCR has postponed the repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan.
According to an IMF report over 700,000 Afghans returned to their native country in 2016, mainly from Pakistan.
Approximately 4.2 million Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan voluntarily under the UNHCR-funded Voluntary Repatriation programme since 2002.
Speaking to AFP, a spokesperson for UNHCR said that some 1.34 million registered refugees still reside in Pakistan. She also estimated that the number of undocumented refugees living in the country is half a million.
This only gives way for more uncertainty amongst Afghans living in Pakistan. According to media reports, the repatriation would relaunch from Mar 1, 2017.
‘We paid a bribe to find out where our missing son is’
By Saher Baloch
Back in Karachi, another mother in distress is Bibi Gul. For the past eight months, she has been waiting for her son, Sanaullah, to get back to Jhunjhar Goth. On Jan 8, soon after midnight, six uniformed men barged inside their home and whisked him away, ignoring his family’s pleas.
The next morning his brother, Muhammad Abdullah, went to inquire about the ‘arrest’. The police officers at the Sohrab Goth police station did not have much to divulge. He was asked to speak to officers at the Sachal police station, which proved to be another dead end.
Eight months after he went missing, Sanaullah’s family was informed by the Sachal police station that an FIR (430/2016) dated Aug 14, 2016, was registered against him for being involved in “criminal activities”.
Sanaullah is now at the central jail; his family claims that he is innocent.
The family travelled from the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan to Pakistan around 2008. Being relatively recent migrants to Karachi, the father and son soon got jobs in a nearby madrasa; the former as a cook and the latter as a teacher.
Covering her face with her chador, Bibi Gul keeps a bundle of documents next to her in order to present as evidence to any officer or consulate member willing to listen.
“If I could, I would sell the house to get the money but I have nowhere else to go.”
“We have been to the police station, where we were charged Rs25,000 to divulge where he is. We have also been asked to get a lawyer, but he is demanding Rs150,000 to take up the case.”
With a gesture towards her husband, who is sitting in a corner of the small living room, she adds, “He earns Rs5,000. If I could, I would sell the house to get the money but I have nowhere else to go.”
Throughout the meeting, Bibi Gul clutches at her PoR card, claiming, “They picked my son despite his clean record. He is being unnecessarily detained and the case against him is false.”
There is nothing much she can do, she laments.
‘The happiest day of my life was when I got my Pakistani CNIC’
By Ali Akbar and Sirajuddin
When Sajjad Khan first opened his eyes, he was in Pakistan, at a refugee camp in Peshawar. This is the country where he said his first words and the only country he truly knows.
The now 35-year-old says his family had fled Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war to find safety. Days turned into months, and months into years but the war did not end.
After spending nearly a year at the camp, Sajjad’s family moved to a rented house.
To support them, his father started selling vegetables on a pushcart. After almost 15 years of hard work, they established a food business and began to earn an adequate livelihood.
Sajjad tells Dawn that being unable to apply for Pakistani nationality, they were still facing many problems. Their business and other properties could not be purchased in Sajjad’s father’s name.
He says that the biggest problem that the ID cards rid them of was police harassment.
Neither Sajjad, nor his family wanted to go back to Afghanistan.
After developing relations in government and private business offices, Sajjad’s family came up with the idea of getting ID cards — based on false information.
He still remembers the day he got his Pakistani CNIC. “It was the happiest of my life,” he says.
“After acquiring the identity cards we transferred the properties to our own names and purchased a house in a residential area,” he says. Further adding that the biggest problem that the ID cards rid them of was police harassment.
“We also got access to facilities like hospitals, education, housing and travelling.”
Because of their new cards, Sajjad’s family was finally able to perform Haj and Umra.
Their family was not an exception.
“Thousands of other Afghan families enjoyed facilities available to Pakistani citizens after obtaining ID cards based on fake information.”
Afan, another Afghan-origin man remarked that obtaining Pakistani CNICs was not tough 10 years ago — at the time officials were readily issuing cards in lieu of bribes.
An FIA official tells Dawn that Afghans not only purchase properties by obtaining these CNICs but also serve in government departments and actively participate in local government elections.
Things have changed now. Many Afghan-origin families like those of Sajjad and Gula are facing problems as the government has started strictly reverifying CNICs.
‘Learning Urdu became my passion’
By Saher Baloch
Ghazi Khan, 54, is among the second generation of Afghan refugees who came to Pakistan in the early 1980s. He is one of the few people in Karachi’s bustling bazaar of Al-Asif Square who speaks fluent Urdu apart from his mother tongue, Farsi.
His family and eight siblings covered the 15-day-long journey from his ancestral home in East Afghanistan to the Torkham border on foot. After moving they had to learn things “the hard way” and go the extra mile to assimilate in Pakistani society.
Ghazi quickly started to learn Urdu because he was often refused jobs because of his inability to converse easily during business transactions.
“Learning the language became my passion,” he recalls.
The second priority was finding a job. “There were two types of Afghans coming over to Pakistan at the time. Those who could afford to invest in the transport business, and those who were daily wagers such as my father. Selling our land in Paktia did not get us enough money; so the first few years were tough on the family,” he says.
After working at a teashop and later at a garage, his father bought a shop along with a few friends from Paktia in Al-Asif Square.
Ghazi ultimately took over the shop.
Things are very different today. He is not happy with business, and sales have been low for the past few months.
We sing the same national anthem as any other Pakistani and love this country.
“There is a general disappointment among people over the continuing animosity between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is not our fault,” he says.
He continues, “All across the world a person gets citizenship after spending about five to 10 years in a country. We have spent three decades of our lives in Pakistan and yet we are called mohajireen.”
“It is us, the second generation, that is still keeping a link between Afghanistan and Pakistan alive by inculcating our tradition, language and culture in our children,” he adds.
Ghazi worries about how the next generation of Afghans in Pakistan would survive if they had to go back to Afghanistan. He tells Dawn that these children prefer speaking in Urdu and cannot communicate fluently in Farsi or Pashto.
“We no longer have links with our extended family back in Paktia. They illegally encroached upon our land or sold it for a far lesser than their actual value. As a result of this animosity with the relatives, the link with language and way of living also broke.”
The constant checking of PoR Cards by the police and Pakistan Rangers with the beginning of operation in Karachi in Sep 2013, resumed again with Islamabad’s renewed efforts to repatriate Afghan refugees.
“Afghans are arrested quickly just by mentioning that they are one during security search in Jhunjhar Goth and surrounding areas,” Ghazi adds.
“It has reached a point where we have to beg to be shown respect. We sing the same national anthem as any other Pakistani and love this country.”
‘The Afghans leaving will affect my business’
Sirajuddin and Tooba Masood
Meet Muhammad Azeem.
When he moved to a refugee camp in Peshawar, the skilled carpet maker started weaving carpets from his tent to support his extended family, which had accompanied him to Pakistan.
At this stage, he could never imagine that he would one day run a factory, and become the largest producer of Afghan carpets in Peshawar.
Initially, he would sell the carpets at very low rates. While working on carpets, he also continued building ties with salesmen, exporters, and traders in Peshawar and other cities.
After years of resolute efforts and sleepless nights, he managed to get enough of a financial standing to rent a small house in Peshawar’s Faqirabad area. His family finally moved out of the relief camp, ready to start a new chapter of their lives.
Of the many stereotypes that exist about Afghan refugees and migrants in Pakistan, one of the strongest is that they are a burden on the economy. This assumption fails to take into account the fact that Afghans have for years been assimilated in Pakistan and contribute to various industries including food, transport, and, of course, the carpet industry.
Today, Azeem’s carpets are best known for their artistry, colour palette and design — ‘both locally and internationally,’ he alleges.
At the time, demand for handwoven Afghan carpets was high, he says. “There were no factories in the city. This gave us an advantage, we worked day night; engaging more skilled workers to meet the demand.”
With time Azeem was able to employ more workers — creating about 80 jobs — and rent a building on Charsadda road to use as a factory.
Pakistan gave Azeem the opportunity of making it on his own based on sheer hard work, and he took it with stride.
And then the Army Public School attack happened.
“Production has decreased by 95 per cent; we have stopped further purchasing rugs and other material. We are nearly ready to close the factory.”
The police started raids and crackdowns against Afghans, forcing many to return to Afghanistan to avoid police harassment and arrest.
As Azeem’s buyers, and workers, started to leave Pakistan, he found himself back to square one.
More than 30 of his factory’s Afghan skilled workers have left the country.
“Production has decreased by 95 per cent; we have stopped further purchasing rugs and other material. We are nearly ready to close the factory,” a disappointed Azeem says.
Dozens of other Afghan carpet producers have closed shop.
The carpet market is not doing much better in Karachi.
Towards the heart of the daunting maze that is Al-Asif Square, is a street known to every man, woman and child in the area — ‘Carpet Wali Gali’. The gali’s colloquial name was supposedly given to it due to the Afghan traders that had set up shop in the vicinity.
With a residential block of apartments on the left, the right side is lined with shopkeepers and carpets from all over the world.
In one of the shops, sits Baba Nazar, a second-generation Afghan immigrant who was born in Karachi. The 22-year-old says that his ties to the land his father was born in are still strong.
His father, an Afghan who moved here in the late 1970s in hopes of settling down, had started their carpet business — making, buying and selling all sorts of carpets, daris and dastarkhwans. He still runs the small shop in Al-Asif.
“He moved to Karachi before I was born...before even my eldest brother was born. He has spent at least 35 years in this city alone,” Nazar tells Dawn.
According to the young man, along with locally handcrafted carpets, they also sell carpets and rugs made in Iran, Turkey and Belgium.
He shows us the most expensive item in their shop: a deep red carpet from Turkey, the price can fluctuate from Rs45,000 to Rs55,000 depending on the buyer (and their bargaining skills). The shop also has several cloth and jute dastarkhawans on sale ranging from Rs1,500 to Rs3,000.
“Our business depends on the residents of this area and the Afghan community.”
He adds that Iranian carpets were another category altogether — “I have Iranian carpets starting from Rs12,000 to Rs22,000; there are different rates for different patterns, thread and type of work.”
Like Azeem, Nazar too enjoyed good business until recently.
“Most of my own customers are from Karachi,” Nazar says. “I get a lot of people from Orangi, Banaras and many other far off places,” he adds.
On an average, the shop did good business, he tells Dawn. “We would make around Rs30,000 to Rs35,000 in one day if we had a good buyer. It always depends on the number of buyers,” he says.
“With the government asking the Afghans to leave I believe that it will affect my business,” he says, pausing to reconsider, “…actually I feel that it already has”.
“I cannot say what is happening in other markets but just buying and selling carpets in our own market, our business depends on the residents of this area and the Afghan community,” he says.
“If you send them back to Afghanistan, who will buy all these carpets? Business will go thapp [down],” he explains.
Project director | Fahad Naveed
Executive producer | Atika Rehman
Editing | Atika Rehman, Fahad Naveed, Jahanzeb Hussain
Design | Alyna Butt
Videography | Kamran Nafees