‘Noth­ing here but dust’

Afghan na­tives re­turn­ing from Pak­istan face a bar­ren wel­come in a lush bor­der re­gion


The land is lush in this river-fed re­gion of east­ern Afghanistan. The high­way that leads to the Pak­istani bor­der, 60 miles away, passes fields of ripen­ing wheat, cu­cum­ber and cau­li­flower. The nearby city of Jalal­abad is bustling, with crowded side­walks and traf­fic jams of pro­duce trucks, auto rick­shaws and trac­tors.

But for a large, nearly in­vis­i­ble pop­u­lace of new ar­rivals, the wel­come has been grudg­ing, the work scarce and the ter­rain as bar­ren as the moon.

They are na­tives of the re­gion, but they have been away for years, liv­ing as un­doc­u­mented war refugees in Pak­istan. About 260,000 such re­turnees have ar­rived in the past 15 months, pushed out by Pak­istani au­thor­i­ties and en­cour­aged to re­turn by the Afghan gov­ern­ment, but lack­ing of­fi­cial sta­tus in ei­ther coun­try.

In many ways, they are mis­fits and in­trud­ers in their home­land — no­mads al­lo­cated bits of rocky ground to pitch tents and build cin­der-block huts; sur­plus la­bor­ers in a mar­ket crowded with men who have fled in­sur­gent fight­ing nearby; half-for­got­ten rel­a­tives try­ing to squeeze back into vil­lages where no one has room to take them in.

“There is noth­ing here but dust,” said Hakim Khan, 55, a la­borer and fa­ther of 10, stand­ing on a stony hill­side where the gov­ern­ment said about 700 re­turnee fam­i­lies could set­tle at no cost. Af­ter seven months, most have got­ten only as far as mark­ing their plots with cin­der-block walls, partly be­cause of a dis­pute over who owns the land.

Mean­while, they are camp­ing in makeshift shel­ters, fash­ioned from bits of plas­tic and cloth and cov­ered with sheets of tin. There is no elec­tric­ity, and the only water source for 4,000 peo­ple is a sin­gle well. There is a one-room school­house, but few of the chil­dren at­tend.

In­side Khan’s tent one re­cent morn­ing, three cots were jammed to­gether next to a gas burner and a stack of pots. Chil­dren ran in

and out, chas­ing chick­ens. His wife, hid­ing be­hind a cur­tain, was asked to name her most valu­able pos­ses­sion. “There is noth­ing valu­able enough to men­tion,” she an­swered.

Most of these re­turnees never reg­is­tered with the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment, which meant they were not en­ti­tled to cash pay­ments and other forms of as­sis­tance by the United Na­tions’ refugee agency when Pak­istani of­fi­cials be­gan push­ing out more than 2 mil­lion long-term refugees two years ago.

Many oth­ers with of­fi­cial refugee sta­tus con­tin­ued on to Kabul, the cap­i­tal, where ser­vices and work op­por­tu­ni­ties are greater. But these un­doc­u­mented fam­i­lies — mostly poor and un­e­d­u­cated, with few con­nec­tions — have stayed be­hind, hop­ing to find a niche in their geographic and eth­nic Pash­tun home­land.

At the mo­ment, the of­fi­cial bor­der cross­ing at Torkham is closed, a puni­tive mea­sure taken by Pak­istan last month af­ter a string of ter­ror­ist bomb­ings there were linked to mili­tias based on the Afghan side. The flood of re­turnees slowed to a trickle this win­ter, although U.N. of­fi­cials ex­pect it will re­sume when spring comes and the bor­der re­opens.

Mean­while, those who ar­rived last year, pil­ing their pos­ses­sions in rented trucks, have ten­ta­tively set­tled in camps, com­mu­ni­ties and gov­ern­ment-al­lo­cated tracts. Their only sub­stan­tive aid comes from the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion, a non­profit group that pro­vides shel­ter and ba­sic sup­plies for the first few weeks, plus trans­porta­tion to their des­ti­na­tion.

“We are there when they ar­rive at the bor­der, but what hap­pens af­ter that is a dif­fer­ent is­sue,” said Matthew Gray­don, a spokesman for the or­ga­ni­za­tion here.

One ma­jor prob­lem is se­cur­ing prop­erty rights. Most arable or hab­it­able ter­rain is al­ready claimed, and some ar­riv­ing groups who at­tempted to re­claim fam­ily land have found that oth­ers had ac­quired it and ex­pected them to pay. In the vil­lage of Karokhel, 500 fam­i­lies came back last sum­mer, plan­ning to put up homes, and in­stead be­came em­broiled in a nasty fight.

“This is our an­ces­tors’ land, and we kissed the stones when we ar­rived. But now it feels like a prison,” said Ha­jji Mah­mad Jan, 65, who left Karokhel 40 years ago. Most fam­i­lies are liv­ing in tents, with wheat sheaves for fences, while the le­gal wran­gle con­tin­ues. “Just to fetch a bucket of water from the spring, we have to pay 50 cents,” he com­plained.

An­other shock is the scarcity of jobs, with the na­tional un­em­ploy­ment rate at 40 per­cent. Early each day, re­turnees crowd street cor­ners in Jalal­abad, hop­ing for tem­po­rary work haul­ing bricks or load­ing trucks. One re­cent morn­ing, sev­eral glum men said they had waited for weeks with­out snag­ging a sin­gle job. One be­came so des­per­ate that he spent months in a dis­tant mi­grant camp, pick­ing grapes for $5 a day.

Re­turnees also face job com­pe­ti­tion from vil­lagers dis­placed by the in­sur­gent con­flict. Some have fled fight­ing be­tween Tal­iban and gov­ern­ment forces; oth­ers have es­caped dis­tricts con­trolled by more vi­o­lent Is­lamic State-linked mili­tias. Jalal­abad is rel­a­tively safe, with se­cu­rity forces guard­ing and pa­trolling the roads, so the job­less pop­u­la­tion has swelled.

The luck­i­est new­com­ers, oth­ers say, are those with rel­a­tives and com­mu­ni­ties to wel­come them back. But they too may be strug­gling to get by. If a long-ab­sent un­cle sud­denly reap­pears with an ex­tended fam­ily of 20, Pash­tun tra­di­tion de­mands that they all be ac­com­mo­dated, but re­sent­ment can fes­ter and dis­putes flare.

“This is our an­ces­tors’ land, and we kissed the stones when we ar­rived. But now it feels like a prison. . . . Just to fetch a bucket of water from the spring, we have to pay 50 cents.” Ha­jji Mah­mad Jan

In one farm­ing vil­lage north of Jalal­abad, bor­der­ing the Ku­nar River, five lo­cal fam­i­lies re­turned from Pak­istan last fall. There was no space for them, and ten­sions soon erupted. Two broth­ers in their 30s, one an en­gi­neer and the other a busi­ness owner in Pak­istan, found them­selves job­less and liv­ing with their fam­i­lies in dark, mud-walled rooms that opened onto a yard for sheep and goats.

“For the first few nights, my chil­dren kept ask­ing why we didn’t turn on the lights,” the businessman, Nan­jialai Khan, said bit­terly. The en­gi­neer, Rafi­ul­lah, con­fessed that he could not bear the idea of work­ing as a farm la­borer. “Peo­ple here work hard. They use shov­els,” he said, mak­ing a dig­ging ges­ture and then show­ing his palms. “It is dif­fi­cult when you have had a softer life.”

An­other man from the same fam­ily said he had no choice but to pitch a tent in the yard of a rel­a­tive with whom he had a per­sonal griev­ance go­ing back years. He seemed dis­traught and said he was un­able to sleep.

“Here we have to live with our en­e­mies, but we have nowhere else to go,” said the man, speak­ing in a whis­per. He said he did not re­mem­ber the vil­lage, and that his ear­li­est mem­ory was of flee­ing across the bor­der as a tiny child af­ter Soviet forces at­tacked Afghanistan. “This is my coun­try,” he said, “but I can­not see the fu­ture at all.”



A woman holds her child in Shiga, in east­ern Afghanistan. Mem­bers of five fam­i­lies there had lived as un­reg­is­tered refugees near Pe­shawar, Pak­istan, for 30 years.


TOP: Men gather on a main street in Jalal­abad, Afghanistan, hop­ing to find a scarce job pay­ing $8 a day. ABOVE: A girl washes her hands be­side the shel­ter her fam­ily lives in on the rocky slope of Sorkha Khan. The near­est drink­ing water is sev­eral miles away. LEFT: Boys play on a ve­hi­cle in Karokhel, a set­tle­ment of about 500 fam­i­lies forced to leave their long­time homes in Pak­istan. The fam­i­lies said they have an­ces­tral rights to land in Karokhel, but the Afghan gov­ern­ment dis­putes the claim.

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