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9/11 brings more misery to Afghan refugees

September 11, 2011

An Afghan refugee family waits for transport at the repatriation centre in Peshawar on March 22, 2010, as they prepare to return to their homeland. About 1.7 million Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan after fleeing civil war and Taliban rule in their homeland. – AFP Photo

ISLAMABAD: A month after 9/11, Afghanistan was attacked by a western coalition whose aim was to eliminate the Taliban regime in Kabul and Al Qaeda.

Escaping the ravages of war, Afghan refugees headed for Pakistan as they had done earlier when the Soviets invaded their country.

Najeeb Khan, 44, from Kandahar was one of them. Khan is now a Naan seller at the famous Peshawar Mor market home to several clay oven shops mostly owned by Afghan migrants.

“I was already facing the Taliban’s brutality and had seen people being flogged by them daily. Then, one day the Americans attacked our village. I saw the Taliban compound reduced to ashes before my eyes,” says Khan.

But the loss was not the Taliban’s entirely. “I lost my uncle in one such American attack. He was just a farmer, trying to earn a living for his huge family.”

Khan, who has seven children, remembers that his journey to Pakistan after 9/11 was a tough one. “Some two months after the attack, we left our war-torn village towards the Pakistan border,” he adds. “At the border, Taliban would not allow us to leave Afghanistan. I had to beg and plead that I was accompanying sick children and an un-well wife; they finally allowed us to cross the border on humanitarian grounds.”

The next hurdle was that they had no travel documents and, therefore, were not allowed to enter Pakistan.

It took days before the family got the registration done to stay at a refugee camp in Pakistan.The journey to Islamabad was the next hurdle. Khan was heading for the capital of Pakistan as his brother was already there. “From Peshawar to Islamabad, at almost every checkpoint I paid money to get the officials turn a blind eye to the fact that we had no documents,” he remembers.

He ends his story by saying: “War never gives anyone a result; it only sends people to the graveyard and robs generations of a better future.”

Khan has not returned to his village since then. He fears being killed by the Taliban or by the Americans or by his ethnic rivals.

The UNHCR agreed to assist the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan for three years starting in 2003. – Photo courtesy of UNHCR.

Khan’s brother Aziz has been living in Pakistan since 1982. He left his homeland when the Russians arrived there. “I was just a child then and my elders asked me to stay here because Pakistan was safe. Other relatives went back in 1992 (Najibullah’s government was overthrown then) and in 1996 (Taliban took over Kabul) when my country was relatively peaceful. But all this changed with the American invasion. No one leaves their ancestral village out of choice,” he adds.

But for Aziz Khan, 9/11 brought a different set of problems. He and other Afghan refugees are now frequently visited by federal and local security officials for information on guests and other aliens.

“We started feeling the heat after 9/11 mainly because we were Afghans,” he said.

Police visits are now a routine.

“Afghan refugees used to visit us but after the refugee camps were established and the registration process was started by the UNHCR, hardly anyone made it to the capital city,” he noted.

Aziz noted that he was lucky - running a tandoor in the city - otherwise he too may have returned to Afghanistan under the UN refugee agency’s repatriation policy.

The UNHCR agreed to assist the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan for three years starting in 2003. (It was subsequently extended twice, once up to December 2009 and then to 2012). Some 340,000 individuals went home by 2003; over 380,000 followed in 2004; and some 450,000 in 2006, says the UNHCR website.

Aziz condemns the WTC attacks “because innocent people were killed” as he gets up to distribute Naan among the waiting Afghan migrants, including women and children. Izzat Jehan Khan, 73, is one of them.“After the American invasion, we were at the receiving end. I don’t know why they attacked us because of the Taliban.”

He added that 9/11 simply brought more bitter memories for people like him. “I saw sleuths and plain-clothes police officials asking young Afghan men for information and tips about the Taliban leader. They would visit us often in Islamabad,” said Jehan, adding he has spent his life witnessing war and bloodshed. He laughed and said: “How would a man looking for a loaf of bread know any Taliban or political figure of Afghanistan. They (Taliban) are rich and we are poor.”

“I have only heard about 9/11,” he added. As Aziz handed over a Naan to Jehan, he said: “This is all the result of the invasions of our country - hunger, poverty and death in an alien land.”