A little slice of Afghanistan

Published February 19, 2014
File photo
File photo

KARACHI: Zulekha Bibi has recently returned from a trip to her family in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. It was her first visit to them since she arrived in Karachi 20 years ago. Her life, like that of many women here, is so insular that she still can’t speak a word of Urdu and her son has to play interpreter. Her plump face, framed by lush, black curls, breaks into a smile while recalling her hometown.

“Mazar-i-Sharif is a beautiful city with lots of gardens,” she says. “This place is filthy. There’s garbage everywhere you look.”

Her reference is to Camp Jadeed, a few kilometres off the Superhighway, where she lives with her 80-year-old husband Haji Jalal, eight children and an assortment of daughters-in-law and grandchildren.

Known locally as Afghan camp, this is the only registered camp for refugees in Karachi, which was set up 30 years ago for Afghans fleeing the war in their country. The federal government has recently extended the stay of the estimated 1.6 million legal refugees in Pakistan – far less than those here illegally – for another two years, the latest of many such extensions granted on humanitarian grounds.

According to locals, there are between 50,000 and 55,000 refugees currently living at Afghan camp. However, the total number of people living here is debatable. Locals claim that a large number of Pakistanis internally displaced by the military operations in Fata have also come and settled here.

Among the refugees, every Afghan province is represented, although a majority is from Faryab and Kunduz. Various communities that make up Afghan society can be found here: Pakhtun, Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara. (The latter are Sunni Hazaras, not to be confused with the Shia Hazaras who have been targeted in sectarian attacks.) However, Pakhtuns vastly outnumber the rest: of 36 mosques in the area, about 30 belong to Pakhtuns. Much as they do back home, each community lives in a separate portion of the camp and holds its own jirgas, even though there is much interaction on a daily basis.

Zulekha Bibi’s husband, Haji Jalal, belongs to the Pakhtun Achakzai tribe. In his capacity as tribal elder, he presides over jirgas to resolve disputes within the tribe or outside it. These jirgas are held at his dera, a traditional gathering place for men. It’s a long, narrow room lined with red floor cushions. Several children, their curiosity piqued by visitors, hang on to the window grilles although none attempts to step inside.

“Most of the disputes are minor,” says Haji Jalal, who too cannot speak Urdu. “We call both parties before us. If someone’s been injured in a fight, we make the aggressor bear the medical expenses.”

The concept of collective responsibility comes into play with the commission of serious crimes. “In a case of bay-izzati (dishonour), the guilty party has to give its women in exchange,” says Haji Ajab Noor, another member of the tribe. “Some time back, an Achakzai killed an Uzbek at the camp. Our tribe had to collect Rs2,500,000 to pay to the aggrieved family.” The man who had committed the murder, they add, left for Afghanistan three years ago.

Many of these families say that going back to Afghanistan is not an option they can consider. Not only is the prevailing instability in that country daunting but many have lost their land and property in intra-tribal rivalry. UNHCR officials pay regular visits here to record the names of those willing to be repatriated, if any. Such individuals are entitled to $150 per head plus ration.

There are few takers. “No one has left for the past two or three years,” says Mohammed Shah Sarwar. “Even if Pakistan wants us to leave we don’t want to go back.”

According to a social worker in the area, “no one leaves on a permanent basis. Some say they’re leaving, take the money but they turn around and come back after selling the ration.”

Many complain they are harassed by policemen who seek their identity papers. It doesn’t help that their papers are outdated. Several show their Nadra-issued “Afghan citizen” cards which designate them as registered refugees: the expiry date on them is Dec 31, 2012.

Most of them are engaged in livestock farming and as building labour — sometimes working as far a field as Iran and Lahore while maintaining their families at the camp.

Several, like Haji Jalal, own garbage-sorting workshops from where they sell recyclable items to factories. Plastic, electrical parts, TV cables, shoes, etc. lie separated into huge mounds behind his dera. A number of men and young boys sit and sort through the material that sells between Rs20 and Rs35 (a kilo?).

The camp’s narrow, unpaved main street is flanked by rundown shops, selling an assortment of items: poultry, plastic ware, fruit, etc. There are a couple of CD shops too, one with a poster of the Indian movie Jai Ho on the wall. The generally drab surroundings are punctuated here and there by the blue of the pleated, flowing burqas usually worn by women in Afghanistan.

Conditions are basic. Water can only be obtained through tankers. Healthcare is limited to a local ‘dispenser’ and a government clinic for immunisation from childhood diseases. (Although the men at the dera say that the polio vaccine was administered here, none of the houses seem to have been marked by the vaccination team as per routine.)

Most children here don’t go to school, and many work as labour in the nearby New Sabzi Mandi. In any case, the only school in the camp is the Ghazi Amanullah School for boys with 150 students. The medium of instruction is Pashto and Dari, the Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan. Girls are restricted to religious education imparted in mosque-affiliated madressahs.

Although there is a considerable amount of intermingling between the communities here, marriage is another story, at least for the dominant Pakhtun community. While Pakhtun women can only marry within the tribe, Pakhtun men are free to choose wives from other communities as well.

Haji Jalal himself has been married three times, each time to a Tajik woman. Zulekha is his third wife; the first two died back in Afghanistan. At his home, Zulekha and her daughters-in-law burst into laughter when he’s asked why he chose only Tajik women to marry. “Naseeb hai!” (It was fate), replies Haji Jalal with a chuckle, as his son adds, “He also paid 60 goats for her.”

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