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Thursday, 12 September, 2002, 17:32 GMT 18:32 UK
Afghan refugees return home
Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Susannah Price, BBC Correspondent

Afghan refugees are leaving Pakistan in their thousands every week. Susannah Price asks why so many are now returning home and why others have decided to stay in Peshawar.

News of the attacks on 11 September spread quickly among the two and a half million Afghans living as refugees in neighbouring Pakistan.

In the dusty refugee camps they listened on short wave radios, those running businesses in cities such as Peshawar tuned in on satellite and cable television.

Few predicted the subsequent overthrow of the Taleban government two months later - but it opened the flood gates for those who wanted to go home.

Returning home

Since the beginning of the year, more than one and a half million Afghans have headed back. It was unthinkable a year ago. And despite the oncoming winter they are still leaving in their thousands every week. The scale of the return has taken aid agencies by surprise.

The first stop for most returnees is Takhta Beg, a windswept transit camp just an hour's drive away from the Afghan border. Every day long queues of trucks, buses and vans full of Afghans and their belongings wait here to be checked and registered by the UN refugee agency.

Abdul Rahim and his family fled from their home in Baghlan, north of Kabul, two years ago. They were on the front line between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance, and their home was destroyed.

Afghan refugee women carry their belongings
Aid agencies are surprised by the scale of the return

Now the fighting has ended and the Taleban have gone, Abdul Rahim cannot wait to get back in the truck and carry on until they reach their land.

"Now it's far better in Afghanistan than it was in the time of the Taleban", he said. "Then we weren't free, now we are free and we can spend our lives how we want."

About three quarters of the Afghans who are leaving have been living in the towns and cities of Pakistan. Some are well off businessmen who were running transport or carpet businesses, others have been scraping a living by labouring or collecting rubbish.

"I think it's down to hope for a different life", said the head of UNHCR Pakistan, Hashim Utkan.

"There is something called refugee fatigue - after 20 years of not being in your own country you may expect a different life and I think people really felt they had to take a decision and take the opportunity that was shaping up in Afghanistan."

Worries and fears

Not all the refugees are so confident about life in Afghanistan. Many express their fears about security - and they are worried that the warlords will simply begin fighting again as they did in the early 90s before the Taleban imposed their strict rule.

Some who are Pashtuns, the same ethnic group that the Taleban belonged to, are worried about reports of persecution especially in the north.

Afghan woman with her child
Refugees live in plastic tents in camps

And many of the Afghans still in Pakistan say they have no land in Afghanistan, or their homes have been destroyed. Or they fear when they return there will be no employment.

Most of the returnees are heading for Kabul where they believe there is some security and possibility of work.

The United Nations refugee agency gives the returnees some transport expenses, food and sheeting.

But it has not been enough to persuade the majority of those living in refugee camps in Pakistan who have decided to stay put for the time being.

Waiting for peace

Some of the refugee camps were founded more than twenty years ago during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and have evolved into little towns with their own clinics, schools and shopping areas.

The new generation were born and educated in Pakistan although they have been told all about their homeland.

Afghanistan/Pakistan map
Thousands of Afghan refugees return each week

"We tell our children Afghanistan is such a beautiful country with a lovely climate, rivers, fruit orchards and farms," said Mubarakh Shah who runs a road construction firm. "We have a kind of romance with our country."

But his neighbour, 21-year-old Sharpur, was disillusioned by his first visit back home.

"I liked Kabul," he said. "But then I went to my village and you had to get everything from Kabul more than 20 kilometres away."

Baraylai Wali is an Afghan musician living in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar. His songs are all about the beauty of Afghanistan - but he is still not ready to return there yet.

After more than two decades of war, he, like many others, believes the current situation is too fragile.

"I would be so happy to go back there - I spread the voice of peace in my songs against the war and destruction.

"I want to go home and perform. But first there must be peace."

Susannah Price's full report was broadcast on Analysis on BBC World Service on Thursday 12 September 2002. You can listen to this programme by clicking on the link at the top of this page.

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See also:

04 Jul 02 | South Asia
04 Jul 02 | South Asia
09 Apr 02 | South Asia
29 Jan 02 | South Asia
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