Refugees undeterred by crime, ethnic violence, warlords’ rivalries
By Fariba Nawa
August 19, 2002
The San Francisco Chronicle
Maslakh Camp, Afghanistan — Under the scorching desert sun, about 150 men and women gathered in this sprawling refugee camp, listening to an official relay news about their home villages.
It was hardly encouraging. Fighting continues between armies of rival warlords in many of their hometowns, and parts of the countryside remain extremely dangerous. But the men and women were undeterred. “We still want to go home,” one shouted. “We’ve had enough of camp life.”
Despite warnings from human rights groups and the United Nations that certain areas of Afghanistan remain unsafe for repatriation and that returning refugees may face starvation, hundreds of thousands of Afghans are determined to go home. After 23 years of war, they are willing to take their chances against ethnic violence, crime and warlords.
To date, 1.3 million refugees have been repatriated from bordering countries, especially Iran and Pakistan, while about 4.5 million remain in camps outside Afghanistan. Meanwhile, about a million internally displaced people have left camps such as Maslakh, about 10 miles from Herat, for home.
It is “the largest repatriation of people in history,” said Assistant Secretary of State Arthur E. Dewey, the top U.S. refugee official.
Shamira, a 50-year-old with four children, said she is eager to go home after spending 18 months in Maslakh.
“We came because of poverty and hunger, and we have nothing here — not a tent, not enough food,” she said. “God willing, I will go back.”
Before the fall of the Taliban, Maslakh — “Slaughterhouse” in the Dari language — was one of the largest refugee camps in the world, with 117,000 internally displaced Afghans crammed into a settlement a mile wide and three miles long. Today, it is almost a ghost town. The remaining 32,000 refugees are waiting to be registered as returnees before they can leave.
But not all of them will be able to go home. Those who are left are the poorest, with no land or possibility of finding work, and they come from areas where tribal conflicts and political instability stand in the way of their return. In fact, about 500 Afghans still arrive at Maslakh each week from the troubled north.
“The last group told us that they came from Faryab, where they were forced into labor,” said Nasim Aswady, a United Nations worker in charge of security for refugees. “The armed men would force them to work on (the warlord’s) land and bring water from three hours away to their farms.”
Returning refugees face dire conditions in the countryside, but the camps are not without perils of their own. Although Maslakh is less crowded these days, it is still squalid. Some refugees live in tents, while others sleep in mud-brick shelters. Dozens of refugees die in the camp each month from diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis, malaria and respiratory tract infections and are buried in the slowly growing cemeteries near the highway linking Herat and Kabul.
The international community is eager to see the camps disbanded before the coming winter, so aid agencies are subtly trying to encourage the refugees to leave.
At Maslakh, every family used to get a large bag of wheat each month, but those rations were cut to a daily portion of bread and monthly allotments of lentils and oil, partly to prompt the refugees to relinquish their dependency on food handouts.
“It’s always a difficult choice,” said Vanessa Mattar, chief protection officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Herat. “On one hand, there are clearly people who need help. On the other hand, we want to get them back to their villages and we don’t want these camps in the country to become permanent settlements.”
The International Organization for Migration, which is in charge of relocating those displaced inside Afghanistan, gives refugees who leave the camp $10 in cash, plastic sheeting to protect them from the elements, a portion of wheat and transportation home.
For people who have so little, it is a tempting offer. About 358,000 internal refugees have registered to return to their homes in Afghanistan. But last month, the UNHCR abruptly halted assisted repatriation to volatile northern areas such as Faryab province and to the southeast, where the U.S.-led war on terrorism continues.
In northern Afghanistan, factional fighting between warlords Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ustad Atta Mohammed still continues around Mazar-e-Sharif. In Faryab and in the southwestern province of Farah, minority Pashtuns are fleeing targeted violence, including rape, looting and extortion by local commanders. At the same time, UNHCR has told countries where Afghan refugees remain that they should offer incentives — food, supplies and small cash payments — to encourage refugees to repatriate.
Human Rights Watch in New York has condemned the United Nations’ stance, calling it contradictory.
“By advocating for repatriation, UNHCR is sending the message to governments that conditions in Afghanistan are sufficiently stable for a large- scale return,” Rachael Reilly, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a recent statement.
“This is misleading and is contradicted by conditions on the ground.” More than half the refugees in Maslakh are Pashtuns who fled the north not to escape persecution or war, but to try to survive after three years of devastating drought. With more rain falling this year, they are eager to go home. But many have missed the planting season, and if they go home now, they could face starvation again.
“The return issue is a disaster,” said Duccio Staderini of the French doctors’ group Medecins du Monde. “We know people’s places of origin are not safe in terms of food security, and health provision is zero. But the international community is pushing to have people back home.”
In the Herat region, four out of the six refugee camps are being closed, and landowners are coming back to retrieve the property where the camps were set up. Many refugees in the four smaller camps are being transferred to Maslakh. In Maslakh, most of the remaining refugees want to go home, even if it means risking their lives.
Nik Mohammed is from the northern province of Ghor and has lived in Maslakh with six of his family members for the past seven months. “Even if I have a thousand enemies in my hometown, I will still go,” he said. “I don’t want their burned bread here, even though we have no land or work there. We’ll be happy there even if we are dead. That’s where they should bury us.”