bleak house Magazine

Mud huts and no school

The only school was shut two years ago and children mill around, playing cricket with a wooden stick, or riding the carts.

The only school was shut two years ago and children mill around, playing cricket with a wooden stick, or riding the carts.   | Photo Credit: Meena Menon

The writer visits the Afghan refugee settlement in Islamabad where little has changed for thousands of people.

Zaituna Bibi’s most prized possession is a steel flask which keeps tea hot for 24 hours. “I got it specially from Kabul and it costs Rs.1,500. The flasks here are not good, the tea gets cold in no time,” she grins. Like most women in the Afghan refugee settlement in Islamabad, she bakes once a day and about 30 of the large ‘skateboard’ shaped loaves last her nine-member family for three meals a day. They all live and sleep in this small room with mud walls and a makeshift roof which doubles as a sleeping area in the summer. The other room is for the cattle, a cow and goats. A small enclosed courtyard serves as her kitchen and seating area. There is a deep mud oven ( tandoor) and next to it two broad shelves with aluminum vessels and large cans. There is no gas or power here and firewood comes at Rs.3,000 a bundle plus another Rs.500 for transport. The only healthcare centre remains closed most of the time and people pay Rs.500 to get to the nearest hospital.

There is a rough road leading to the camp located on the outskirts of the capital. It has very little resemblance to the rest of the city with its low mud huts, a large shed for cattle fodder, stall-fed cows, donkey carts and turbaned Afghan men. No women can be seen anywhere and strict purdah is observed. The only school was shut two years ago and children mill around, playing cricket with a wooden stick, or riding the carts. But most of the refugees who escaped to Pakistan “when the Russians came” in 1979, can live with all of this.

What really worries them is the police harassment. Bahadur Khan says his 23-year-old son was in jail for 20 days and was recently released due to the efforts of an NGO. Originally from Baglan, he came here 35 years ago when he was a child. Like most Afghans he sells vegetables in the market opposite where they used to live earlier, till they were allotted this new piece of land. “I didn’t go back and there is nothing for us there,” he says. There are about 3,500 people living here and some of them, like Mohammed Isaq are from Kunduz. “I came here as a one-year-old baby with my parents who left everything behind. I doubt if my home still stands,” he says. Isaq earns a living by fetching water on his cart or selling vegetables. He points to the electric poles and wires and says the government doesn’t give them light. “It’s majboori (helplessness); we can’t go back and we find life here very difficult. If the police catch us they tear up our proof of registration (POR) cards and put us in jail. Some of us paid Rs.20,000 to be released. We have to beg or borrow to get out,” he rues.

Shaheen Khan from Jalalabad says most of them can never hope to return to their country since the situation is unstable and their lives could be in danger. The daily trip to the vegetable market is fraught with anxiety. The men leave at five a.m. and often the police lie in wait to catch them and put them in jail. A search operation was conducted here recently and many arrests were made and weapons recovered. Most of them earn Rs.300 to 500 a day like Ahmad Din. His brother Azharuddin has spent five days in jail. Now Ahmad is afraid to leave for work and constantly fears being picked up. He says the police don’t respect the POR cards. He doesn’t want any more children as he doesn’t know how he will raise his two young sons. For the Afghans it’s difficult to get SIM cards or open bank accounts. They buy motorcycles in the names of Pakistanis, he adds.

Sitting inside their enclosed courtyards the women often send little children to fetch water. There is only one borewell which is functional. The government has built toilets at the back of the camp. Zaituna says her home in Kunduz may be beautiful but there is nothing to eat there. She came here when she was three and now has seven children, including four girls. On the single beam holding up the roof she has tied a battery-operated LED lamp with a ribbon. That is the only source of light in most houses. Her husband plies a donkey cart and earns some Rs.300 a day. Women do go out of the camp for medical checkups and visiting relatives but are always accompanied by men as part of the Afghan culture and tradition.

Since it is not an officially recognised camp, it lacks basic amenities provided in refugee villages, says Duniya Aslam Khan, public information officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2009, the Capital Development Authority asked all Afghans residing in a few sectors of Islamabad to vacate the areas to initiate some developmental projects. They were offered two options from UNHCR — they could voluntarily repatriate to Afghanistan or relocate to an alternate site. Some of them did opt to return but around 500 families preferred to stay back and live in this settlement. Khan says that 3.8 million Afghans have returned to their country since 2002. Currently 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan and their POR cards expired in 2012. The National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) with the support of UNHCR is issuing the renewed POR cards, valid until December 2015. There are 76 refugee camps, most of them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 10 in Balochistan and one in Punjab where they get free water, light, healthcare and education. Legal assistance is also provided for illegal detentions under the Foreigners Act.

Most refugees came in since 1979 and a census was only conducted in 2005 when about three million were documented. However, of this, only 37 per cent or 1.6 million were in camps, she says. It was after a follow up census in 2006-2007 that the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) started registering Afghans who were worried about being thrown out. PORs were issued to 2.15 million out of the three million and the registration process is an ongoing one. The government has an Afghan Management and Repatriation Strategy (AMRS) to facilitate voluntary return of the refugees.

However, there is a continuing influx of refugees at the two official crossing points at the border at Chaman and Torkham, apart from a floating population which moves in and out. The UNHCR also has a Refugee Affected and Hosting Area (RAHA) programme accepting that there is a host fatigue in Pakistan. Under the three-year project, UNHCR and UNDP provide development funds to areas where the Afghan refugees live as a compensation for hosting them.

In May 2012, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan and UNHCR had an international stakeholder’s conference in Geneva to formulate a Solution Strategy for Afghan Refugees and create a conducive atmosphere for their return. Under this, 48 sites were identified as potential return areas and work was going well in 19 of them. However, the numbers are declining each year of the refugees who want to return. Last year, it was only 31,000. Faced with a bleak future in their own country, they stay back in the hope of survival in Pakistan.

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 3:16:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/mud-huts-and-no-school/article6111392.ece

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