MARASI (elegies) of Anees and Dabeer apart, not many quotes have the effect that ‘jan-i-pidar kujasti’ (father’s love! where are you) does. This was an Afghan man’s last text message to his daughter upon hearing that terrorists had attacked her university in Kabul on Nov 2, 2020. She was among the 32 killed that day. This was when the Americans were very much there; Ashraf Ghani was ensconced in the presidential palace; the Taliban could smell what some call ‘victory’, but they were still some way away from the ‘trophy’ called Kabul.
Unlike Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, Sindh does not border Afghanistan, yet it has a sizeable Afghan refugee presence. It is not just Karachi; visit the smallest of towns and you will find Afghan tradesmen and labourers. Many clans proudly trace their ancestry to Afghan tribes who settled in Sindh centuries ago. A lady everybody called ‘rwandari’ (brother’s wife in Pashto) in the Karachi neighbourhood of my younger days was from Qambar, Shahdadkot. Married into Mengals, a Brahui-speaking tribe whose men all spoke their wives’ mother tongue Pashto at home, she would break into Sindhi when particularly angry only to announce at the top of her voice “I am an Afghan! Never forget that.” Quite a melting pot, eh?
It takes great effort and goodwill by all sides for the migrants to be absorbed into the host communities. The new arrivals are almost always resisted, suspected and resented as we have seen in the case of Afghan refugees in the 1980s. A sense of vulnerability, the perception of strength-in-numbers, but most of all circumstances cause the new arrivals to live cheek by jowl on the outskirts of cities and towns.
Over time these locales become ghettos identified variously as mini-this and little-that. Sohrab Goth on the outskirts of Karachi became one such concentration of Afghan refugees. Once an area is inhabited by people who are neither citizens nor prospective taxpayers, the civic bodies feel no obligation towards it. Over time it becomes a no-go area attracting all sorts of shady characters, local and otherwise. This then leads to a wholesale stigmatisation of a people who become the most convenient peg to hang all sorts of law-and-order failures on. If drug dens mushroom in the city, who is responsible? The Afghan refugees. Bomb blasts and targeted killings, who is doing it? The Afghans. A tricycle goes missing from a driveway, a drain cover is nicked by a junkie, and it sure as hell are the Afghan ragpickers who did it.
The new arrivals are almost always resisted.
This time around, things are different. We have said ‘no’ to providing bases that were apparently not asked for in the first place. The Durand Line is almost all fenced and no large-scale refugee settlements are coming up, at least not yet. The Taliban who took control of Kabul are not recognised as the legitimate government at the moment and do not have a plenipotentiary in Islamabad so far. However, we are talking to the Taliban who are talking to the Americans. They may not have called our elected leadership but are in frequent huddles with our top military brass, and mills that grind slow but fine are beginning to creak into motion.
Hundreds of hotels in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore have been ordered through the district administration to not allow any guests as evacuees from Afghanistan will be lodged there through the next few weeks, ostensibly en route to their final destinations, wherever these may be. In Lahore, a number of universities have been verbally ordered to throw out all faculty and students as their facilities are required for the Afghan evacuees.
Expect no explanations when such things happen on verbal orders and when the decisions are taken at corps this and quarter that. You think you deserve to be let in on the policy imperatives just because unlike the Afghans you are the citizens and the electorate? Well, you have another think coming. In the wake of our historical failures to restrict the refugee movement to designated areas, the logic behind lodging them in hotels and hostels in the heart of large cities is elusive to say the least.
Who knows whether the evacuees are vaccinated against Covid, and where, when, and how will they be tested for any variants that they may be carrying? What arrangements are in place to vaccinate them? Who will ensure that the evacuees do not slip into these cities already teeming with their compatriots? If the spokesperson of the TTP could slip through the tight security of the most professional force in the world, why will others not be able to follow suit, especially when guarded by the not-so-professional police force?
Among Sindh’s Sufis, the 18th-century poet Abdul Rahim Garhori is particularly famous for his single-line, chawanion (sayings). The most oft-quoted among them, “jadhen kadhen Sindhri, Tokhey Qandharin jokho” (whenever O’ Sindh! your hurt emanates in Kandahar).
The writer is a poet and analyst.
Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2021