By Fariba Nawa
November 11, 2001
Agence France Presse
Peshawar, Pakistan — These are depressing times for the staff at Herat Carpets, who pass their days drinking copious quantities of tea and staring disconsolately at the nomadic tribal carpets they specialize in but cannot sell.
The Afghan carpet industry — primary source of income for one million refugees in Pakistan — has been left in tatters by the latest conflict to hit their war-torn homeland. Carpet traders estimate that up to 700,000 refugees could find themselves out of work within a month, with no alternative source of income.
Members of the Relief Organization of Pak-Afghan Carpet Traders say new orders dried up after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington which precipitated the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
“Most of our carpets are sold in America and Europe and this is supposed to be our busiest time with Christmas approaching,” said Haji Naeem Walizada, president of the carpet traders organization.
“But instead of doubling as usual, our business has practically stopped,” said Walizada, who believes some western buyers are boycotting Afghan carpets. Haji Abdul Wahid, owner of Herat Carpets, said he understood why individual buyers were staying away.
“They want to save their extra money for happier times. I wouldn’t even buy a carpet at a chaotic time like this,” Wahid said.
Walizada’s own business, Naeem Carpets, posted sales of 600,000 dollars in October 1999. This October, that figure plunged to just 50,000 dollars.
Faced with growing stockpiles, Naeem’s parent company Lahore Carpets — one of the largest manufacturers of Afghan carpets — has told its weaving factories to stop production. “Our customers are simply not ordering,” said Lahore Carpets owner Shahid Sheikh.
“We’re going to try and keep feeding our workers for a month, but the industry is looking at lay-offs of about 700,000 people,” Sheikh said.
The concerned traders have gone so far as to call on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help tide the industry over the current crisis.
Some major carpet traders have built special colonies for their factory workers, comprising homes, schools and free health clinics.
If the manufacturing shuts down, so does the entire support infrastructure.
Business crashed as Walizada’s organization was halfway through building a “carpet town” on 275 acres (110 hectares) of land in Chamkani near the northwestern Pakistan city of Peshawar.
The trade organization has written to the UNHCR requesting help with completion of the project, which would prove an important source of employment for Afghan refugees when the industry picks up again.
Walizada, who employs 45,000 Afghan refugees, said only 5,000 remain at work.
For many refugees, carpet weaving is considered a high-end job, bringing in between 2,000 and 3,000 rupees (30-45 dollars) a month depending on how fast families produce the carpets.
Most weavers work from their homes at their own pace and are paid on completion of each carpet.
Traders say the industry has a role to play in bringing peace to Afghanistan, arguing that its viable source of income would attract many young Afghans whose only other option was to join one of the country’s myriad mujahedin groups as a salaried fighter.
“So many soldiers and generals fight in the war because of money. We have convinced many of them to give up their weapons and work in the carpet business for a living inside and outside Afghanistan,” Walizada said.
Abdul Rahim, a former mujahedin general in Kabul before the Taliban came to power in 1996, moved to Pakistan with his family to work in the carpet industry.
He supports 12 people including members of his brother’s family.
“We could eat, have shelter and send our children to school, but now I’m not sure what to do, Rahim said.
“I’m looking for other work but not finding any.”