DATELINE: PAKISTAN

Exiles from a war zone

ROSS LAVER December 14 1987
DATELINE: PAKISTAN

Exiles from a war zone

ROSS LAVER December 14 1987

Exiles from a war zone

DATELINE: PAKISTAN

Under a glaring midday sun, a dozen Afghan tribesmen in flowing robes and loosely wrapped turbans gathered by the side of an unpaved road in Munda, a refugee village in northwest Pakistan. Around them stretched a dusty landscape punctuated by sunbaked mud huts, canvas tents and the tall, slender towers of newly built mosques. Located 40 km from the Afghan border, Munda has become a

makeshift sanctuary for some 52,000 Afghans, a small fraction of the estimated 3.5 million refugees who have fled to Pakistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But now, after eight years in exile, a growing number of refugees say that they no longer feel welcome. “We know that many Pakistanis resent our presence,” said Abdul Ghaffar, 32, a native of northern Afghanistan. “All we can tell them is that we have migrated for a purpose. We pray that they will not force us to go back until it is safe.”

So far, there are no signs that the Pakistan government is considering expelling the refugees. Indeed, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, is a staunch supporter of the Afghan resistance fighters, or Mojaheddin, in their struggle against Soviet and Afghan government forces. And Pakistan’s government has furnished the refugees with food, housing and financial aid. It has allowed the Moja-

heddin to use the country’s western border region as a base from which to launch military operations inside Afghanistan. But increasing numbers of Pakistanis are clearly losing patience with the refugees. They complain that the sheer number of Afghans now living and working in Pakistan—they represent about one-quarter of the world’s total refugee population—has destablilized the economy and put

thousands of Pakistanis out of work. As well, a recent wave of terrorist bombings throughout the country has led some Pakistanis to accuse the refugees of fomenting violence and instability within the country.

The backlash has been particularly pronounced in Peshawar, a ramshackle city of 700,000 people that is the capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. For centuries Peshawar’s strategic location—it lies 57 km east of the Khyber Pass, a traditional western approach to the Indian subcontinent—has made it a gathering place for traders and adventurers from both east and west. Rudyard Kipling, the English writer and traveller, described Peshawar as a “city of evil countenances,” where fierce tribal warriors mingled with smugglers, spies, arms dealers and soldiers of fortune.

Peshawar’s dubious reputation has been magnified by the war in Afghanistan. At least a dozen Afghan rebel

groups have their headquarters in Peshawar, and weapons and ammunition are easily obtainable in the city’s many gun shops, although it is illegal to carry firearms in public. Peshawar’s proximity to the border has also led to it having a major refugee problem. Of the 320 government-administered refugee villages scattered throughout Pakistan, 61 are located in or near Peshawar, providing shelter for about 350,000 refugees.

The concentration of refugees has disrupted local life and angered many longtime residents. “Believe it or not, this used to be rather a quiet little town,” recalled a middle-class Pakistani woman in her 30s. “Now the place has become a lot more noisy and crowded.” Sanaullah Khan, a local correspondent for the Lahore-based Pakistan Times, added that many refugees have found jobs by offering to work for less than the rate usually paid to Pakistani workers. And wealthier Afghans have gone into business selling such items as carpets, dried food and clothing. “Nine times out of 10 they are undercutting local shopkeepers,” said Khan. “They even sell sacrificial sheep and goats from Afghanistan for less than the price charged by Pakistani farmers.”

The fact that the refugees share the same ethnic and religious background

as their hosts has helped to smooth relations between the two groups. Still, said Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, 48, vicepresident of the Awami National Party, a left-wing Pakistani opposition group, the presence of refugees and Afghan guerrillas has led to an in-

crease in gunrunning and drug smuggling. “The Mojaheddin are using this part of the country as a training camp,” Bilour said. “Walk into any bazaar and you can buy all the weapons you want. Now when Pakistanis fight among themselves, there is always the chance of some shooting.”

A series of terrorist bomb attacks during the past two years has intensified the climate of fear and suspicion. According to one unofficial estimate, at least 280 5 people have been killed g in bomb blasts so far j this year, most of them ? in Peshawar. The gov! ernment has blamed the z attacks on agents of the Soviet-supported Afghan government, which, it says, is trying to drive a wedge between Pakistanis and the refugees in order to weaken support for the Afghan rebels.

Recent events in Peshawar underscore the volatility of the situation. Last February a bomb exploded outside the offices of an Afghan resistance group, killing 16 people and injuring 70 others, including many children. The incident touched off three days of rioting during which mobs of Pakistanis set fire to shops and vehicles owned by Afghans and demanded that the refugees return to Afghanistan. Later, a group of local businessmen and professionals formed the Peshawar Citizens Front. The organization has urged the government to suspend the existing right of refugees to move freely throughout the country.

Since then the authorities have tried to placate local residents by rounding up refugee families and moving them to camps outside the city—including Munda, 40 km north of the provincial capital. It is a policy that many refugees resent. Said Abdul Ghaffar, one of about 1,400 refugees who were ordered to move to Munda from Peshawar in September: “In the city I was earning 30 rupees [$2.10] a day as a construction worker, but here the jobs are not so good.” Still, he added, “as long as the government provides us with the facilities we need, we will be satisfied. We do not ask for anything more.” Like countless other Afghan refugees, Ghaffar is clearly aware of the danger of overstaying his welcome.

— ROSS LAVER in Peshawar