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Afghans Sent ‘Home’ by Pakistan Struggle to Make It in Unknown Country

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sediqullah, center, registers for aid in Torkham, Afghanistan, on Dec. 4.

TORKHAM, Afghanistan — Many Afghans who have lived in Pakistan for years as refugees are now returning to Afghanistan. They are being pushed out by the Pakistani government, which has been rounding up illegal immigrants. Some who have lived their entire lives in Pakistan are being forced to start over in a homeland they don’t know.

Torkham, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province, lies along the country’s eastern border, some 230 kilometers from Kabul. From the rocky foot of a mountain, where no grass or trees grow, spreads a vast desert. “Beyond the mountain is Pakistan,” said a provincial official, pointing to the mountain.

When I visited Torkham on Dec. 4, the border checkpoint was crowded with returning Afghans. A 42-year old man who identified himself as Sediqullah had just arrived at the checkpoint with his wife and three young children from the Pakistani town of Chakwal, more than 300 kilometers away.

When I tried to interview Sediqullah, the interpreter who accompanied me from Kabul was baffled. “I don’t speak his language,” he said. Sediqullah, a Pashtun, only spoke Pashto. The interpreter, a Tajik, spoke Dari. With the help of a provincial official who spoke both languages, we were able to talk. This is the reality of Afghanistan, a multiethnic country.

“I have no job. No nothing. But it’s OK if we can get a place to stay,” said Sediqullah. Having been born in Pakistan, this was the first time for him to set foot in Afghanistan. His parents were refugees from the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union.

The Pakistani government started rounding up undocumented immigrants to meet a Nov. 1 deadline last year. Pakistan claims that many Afghans are involved in terrorist attacks in the country, and had asked the Taliban, the Islamist group that has controlled Afghanistan since August 2021, to address the issue, but the Taliban denies the involvement of Afghans.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

No relatives in homeland

According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, of the 3.2 million Afghans living in Pakistan, about 1.3 million are registered as refugees. The Pakistani government insists that some 1.7 million are illegal immigrants.

Sediqullah, who does manual labor for a living, said he waited until his last payday before leaving the country. “I’m thinking of going to Mazar-i-Sharif in northern [Afghanistan],” he said, “I heard my grandfather was living there.” But he had no hard proof of relatives in the north.

According to a tally by the Nangarhar authorities, 600,000 returnees have arrived in the province since October.

Since Pakistan extended its Nov. 1 deadline to the end of February this year, returning Afghans have been arriving in Torkham every day. If they have nowhere to go, they are placed at a temporary border camp. There are around 100 tents at the camp.

Dawod Ashna, 30, who was deported from Pakistan, spent half a month at the fly-ridden camp while he looked for family. He was given some 15,000 Afghanis (about ¥30,000) and some daily necessities. But this was a one-time handout. He would get no more support for his family’s daily needs.

“I have no education and I can only do manual labor,” Ashna said, showing his blistered palms. “I’m not sure if I can get a job.” Ashna had only one travel bag filled with clothes and other items for his family of seven.

Pakistan-born Said Omar, 35, spent more than a month in a tent with his five family members. “I have no relatives [in Afghanistan]. I want to go back to Pakistan,” lamented Omar. Returnees who cannot find a place to go will be relocated to another camp in Afghanistan.

Unlike the low-lying, relatively warm Torkham, Kabul and mountainous areas see temperatures below freezing during the winter. The Taliban government is said to be planning to give free land to returnees, but no details are known. A spokesman for the Afghanistan Refugees Ministry only said, “We are planning.”