Refugees

THE LONG ROAD HOME

ADNAN R, KHAN July 1 2002
Refugees

THE LONG ROAD HOME

ADNAN R, KHAN July 1 2002

THE LONG ROAD HOME

Refugees

ADNAN R, KHAN

Another crisis is building in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban, refugees have been streaming back to their homeland. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that, since March, more than one million people have returned to a country ill-prepared to care for them, and the pace is not letting up. Many of the returnees are finding life in the “new” Afghanistan more desperate than what they experienced in the squalid refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran. Torontobased photojournalist Adnan R. Khan recently travelled to Kabul with one returning family. His report:

ABDUL WASSAY and his family were fortunate to escape Afghanistan alive in the summer of 1992. They cut it close: with the factional fighting reaching horrendous levels, Wassay, then a roti cook barely into his 20s, woke his wife and only son

Thousands of Afghans who fled their country are now returning

before dawn. They packed up whatever meagre belongings could be carried, and headed for the hills. Their house in Kabul was bombed the next night—when they were in the mountains about halfway to Pakistan.

That was a decade ago—10 agonizing years ofwaiting and praying for loved ones, of living in squalid camps, unwanted by the frenetic rulers of their homeland and largely forgotten by the international community. But the Taliban have been vanquished by coalition forces, and Wassay and his family, now with an additional three children born in Pakistan, are going home.

They’re not alone on the journey. The road leading into Afghanistan from the Towr Kham border crossing, along the storied Khyber Pass, is awash with returnees. It’s an awe-inspiring sight: convoys of transport trucks brightly painted with scenes of lush farmlands and mountain valleys, all stuffed to the brim with

people. As they cross the line from purgatory in Pakistan to the Promised Land they’ve been denied for so long, they cheer and wave.

Amid the euphoria, I am worried. Despite my Canadian citizenship, my Pakistani roots may be a problem. Pakistanis don’t get much respect in Afghanistan—in the north they’re considered Taliban sympathizers, while in the south they’re reviled as turncoats for their support of the American-led war. It’s a nowin scenario and my guide has made me vow to deny my ethnic origins at all costs. “You’re a Canadian, no matter what anyone says,” he warns.

That doesn’t make me feel any more secure. We’ll be passing the place where four journalists were executed in November, and I’ve heard rumours that rogue Taliban have been slicing off ears and noses of men who do not sport beards. Wassay tells me not to worry—apparently

there hasn’t been a mutilation incident in at least a week.

THE ROAD TO JALALABAD, a quarter of the way into the 200-km journey to Kabul, can lull travellers into a false sense of security. Often tree-lined, it cuts through a wide fertile plain ringed by gently sloping hills with the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush further off in the distance. Traditional Afghan music blares from the bus’s stereo; people laugh and tell stories of a more peaceful era in Afghanistan, when summer picnics were the norm and conflict was something that happened in distant lands.

After Jalalabad, the country begins to look more like the Afghanistan I’d anticipated. The change is sudden, like a switch flipped and reality illuminated by a harsher light. The country becomes a barren wasteland, even though my companions don’t appear overly moved by the con-

trast. Perhaps they weren’t as duped as I was by the small slice of paradise we’ve left behind. We pass a rusted Russian tank sitting by the roadside, and bombed-out villages. Nothing is left standing between Jalalabad and Sarowbi, a small town slightly more than halfway to Kabul. Some of the most intense fighting between Russian forces and the Afghan mujahedeen took place in these hills, my guide tells me. He should know: his father is the governor of the town, and during the war against the Russians he fought with the renowned leader Ahmed Shah Masood, who was assassinated two days before the Sept. 11 attacks by suspected members of al-Qaeda.

We stop in Sarowbi so my guide can visit his family. It’s an Afghan-style reunion complete with Kalashnikovs and cawa, a sweet green tea that’s a staple for the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. Sarowbi has a reputation of being an especially lawless

place in a lawless land, and as we duck into the governor’s compound a small battalion of men stands guard against any approaching enemy. The reality is that there is not much of an enemy left to fight, and the men are relegated to a daily routine of hashish and lounging.

Wassay and his family remain on the periphery of the festivities. They seem agitated by the delay, and out of place. The militarization of Afghanistan has left many of its people without a role to play in their homeland. Wassay left to escape guns and war; now that he’s back, he doesn’t quite fit in with the soldiers and hardened fighters who are the dominant feature of his county. His brother, who died soon after Wassay fled, was the fighter in the family, he says. “These guns, I never felt comfortable with them,” Wassay says. “I’m a cook, not a soldier.” Perhaps that will eventually be to his advantage in the “new” Afghanistan. When the dust settles, and the country emerges

from the depths of conflict, it will be people like Wassay who will usher in the new era. If the dust ever settles.

After Sarowbi, the journey becomes a painfully slow process as the bus slaloms its way around crater-sized potholes and fallen boulders. Every few hundred metres we pass another vehicle humbled by the ravaged road—broken axles are the most common sight—and I begin to wonder whether our ancient bus has what it takes to survive.

Abdul Wassay and his family seem unperturbed. They’ve set their sights beyond the towering peaks that stand between us and the Kabul plain. But they’ll have to be patient: after 14 hours on the road—a journey that should last barely half a day under more normal conditions—the deepening darkness and the possibility of attacks by rebels force us to stop. Better to take no chances. But we leave well before sunrise. The returnees are impatient: a

decade can feel like a lifetime and a day like a decade when home is so close at hand.

WELCOME TO KABUL. There is little conversation on the bus as the passengers take in the depressing sight. In one 15minute span we see as many foreign troops as locals: French, German, American. Choppers fly supplies to the front lines where soldiers work clearing mines. The message seems to be: this is still a war zone—don’t get too comfortable.

That’s also what an official at the UNHCR station tells us: “Brothers, sisters, children, Aslam-walekum [may God protect you]. The UNHCR has stationed us in Kabul to warn you about mines and rockets so that you may avoid the danger. You who are returning to Afghanistan must avoid, must not touch, these things. Every day we tell 10,000 people about the dangers in Afghanistan. Children, women, seniors, please pay attention to

these displays. Everyone pay attention to me. This is a bomb, these are mines, this is a rocket launcher...”

The morning is grey and chilly. Stiff and shivering, Wassay stocks up on the meagre supplies offered by the UNHCR as part of a “Refugee Reintegration Package”— US$100, blankets, soap, a tarp and tent, a bucket, some wheat, feminine pads. It’s a small token, barely enough to last a week in the impoverished capital, but he appreciates the assistance. He’s worried about the burden he’ll be placing on the friends who have agreed to house the family until he gets on his feet. “This will help,” he says, putting the supplies into the bus for the last leg of the journey.

I LEAVE WASSAY and his family as they unload and stand, momentarily bewildered, in front of their friend’s home in the heart of Kabul. Wassay’s plan is to stay a few days in the small mud-brick structure

that has become a shelter for four families. Two weeks later, I find him still there, unable to find work and disillusioned by the realities of the city that refuses to embrace him. Every day he pays a visit to the gutted remains of his old home, and makes plans. “This time,” he says, “I think I’ll build the kitchen on this side, where the bedrooms were. It gets more light in the morning. I’ll have to build another room for the children, but I think we’ll get by.” The words are optimistic, but he is a man grasping for hope. The future of Wassay and others like him rests largely in the hands of the international community. But the aid agencies are broke, and the flow of funds from international donors has slowed to a trickle. The world has ignored Afghanistan before. Now, that cycle may be about to repeat itself. The forgotten people of Afghanistan have returned, only to find that, after their long absence, they were never really missed. I?1