LAHORE – Haji Asal Khan tears up when he remembers the horrors of war, fleeing with his family from Kunduz, Afghanistan. The Soviets were carpet bombing the whole city of Aliabad on that day in 1982 and he made it to Pakistan by travelling on foot for almost two months. On the way, he lost friends and many members of his family. World Refugee Day
“When it snowed, we took shelter in caves,” he says. “We continued our journey without food for days. We walked barefoot and reached Miranshah in South Waziristan and then Kohat. There we lived for three months in refugee camps in Mianwali at Kot Chandna, at Tola Mangli and Kutch Tunder Khelset. Then, in search of a better life, we moved to Lahore.”
There are 10,198 registered Afghan refugees currently living in Lahore and for the last 34 years, Asal Khan and his family have lived in the Saggian bridge area on the outskirts of the city.
Saggian Bridge, also known as the Old Ravi Bridge, has been almost completely occupied by Afghan makeshift homes – about 1,200 of them on either side. The refugees, even their children, are waste collectors. In wheelbarrows and knotted sacks, they pick through, carry and sell the plastic bottles, boxes and trash of urban Lahore.
“War was always imposed upon us Afghans,” Asal Khan says. “Even now, there is no peace in Afghanistan. How can we go back there?”
A dozen Afghan elders sit on a rug laid out in an empty plot of land adjacent to Asal Khan’s home. Some of the elders wear traditional Afghan turbans and those who are less senior, and poorer, wear Sindhi caps. The Afghans living here come from Kunduz’s various cities and villages – from Aliabad, Archi, Chahar Dara, Imam Sahib, Khan Abad and Qalay-i-Zal.
Asal Khan, also known as “Malick” (tribal elder) around the Afghan community, is Vice President of the Afghan Refugees Lahore Peace Committee. Other tribal elders present remain silent as a sign of respect when he speaks.
As the sun sets, inside his makeshift house draped with laundry, rugs and utensils hanging from lines, Asal Khan’s wife, Khasa Bibi, lights a fire in a mud stove to start dinner for her fifteen children. Her daughter Shaista Bibi has just finished making a bright pink Afghani shirt that is proudly displayed for the rest to see.
Most of the Afghans living in the community exist below the poverty line of Rs 3,000 a month. There is no school in the locality and dispensaries or doctors to treat illnesses. In 2011, an NGO called Faces Pakistan established a school with the support of the UNHCR but it closed soon after.
“The school stopped our children from singing the Afghan national anthem which was our right as refugees,” Asal Khan says proudly.
Now, most of the Afghan children are getting an informal religious education. An Afghan Imam makes the rounds, educating boys and girls separately on religion.
There are nearly three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan that the government of Pakistan is trying to repatriate and reportedly 36,328 Afghans have been repatriated from Punjab this year alone. According to a government official, the UNHCR is giving $400 (Rs 42,000) to every refugee leaving the country.
In total, 380,045 registered Afghans refugees have returned to Afghanistan in this voluntary repatriation campaign, but there are so many registration irregularities, that keeping accurate track of the population is difficult.
One glaring example is Asal Khan’s proof of registration card which shows his age as only 40 years old. The record is definitively incorrect by a few decades.
The Government of Afghanistan launched its own campaign in July this year to encourage Afghan refugees to return home called “Khpal Watan, Gul Watan” (My country, my beautiful country).
According to Asal Khan, however, the money is not enough.
“At least the Afghan government should give us the land we lost in a war not of our making, and help us build houses in our native towns,” he says.
“What is the purpose of ever going back?” says 65-year-old Muhammad Hussain Khan, a handsome blue-eyed Afghan elder, who has been sitting silently praying on his rosary beads. “We have spent a great part of our lives here,” he says. “Now let us die here in peace.”
Edited by Amal Khan
courtesy: The Nation