Afghan refugees mull return home after Pakistan floods

By Augustine Anthony

AZA KHEL, Pakistan (BestGrowthStock) – Floods ravaged tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who have been living in Pakistan for decades after fleeing Soviet occupation and civil war.

Now as they survey kilometers of flattened mud and brick houses in a refugee camp in northwest Pakistan, some contemplate returning to an Afghanistan still gripped by violence.

Roaring waters shattered dreams.

“The river swallowed everything. We have no house no business, nothing to eat, nothing to wear,” said Nizam Ali who just passed his 12th grade exams and was planning to pursue further studies in the nearby city of Peshawar.

“No one is helping us, it now looks as if we have no other choice but to go back to Afghanistan.”

Men who were busy spreading soaked bed-sheets and mattresses over a dry patch of land nodded in agreement. “This is what we have left,” said Khair Mohammad, carrying a stack of clothes and bed-sheets on his back in Aza Khel refugee camp,

Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion and, while many of them went home after the U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001, an estimated 1.7 million remain in Pakistan, mostly in refugee camps.

Last year Pakistan agreed to let the displaced Afghans stay until the end of 2012, after a resurgence of violence along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border hindered repatriation efforts.

PAST AND PRESENT UNCERTAINTY

Going back to Afghanistan could mean exposure to some of the conditions they fled in the first place. Many left while the Afghan mujahideen were fighting Soviet troops. That was followed by civil war. Now, the Taliban battle U.S.-led NATO troops.

The floods have forced the refugees to move about 100 meters away from Aza Khel, along a railroad track and a highway median. It’s not far but perhaps as traumatic as leaving Afghanistan since that has been their home for decades.

“No one has come to this area, there might still be bodies lying in there, under the rubble,” said 24-year-old Sultan Habib, a cook who worked in a restaurant in a nearby city.

“I know two or three boys who are still missing.”

Aza Khel began as a small settlement along a railway track about 30 years ago. It gradually grew into a village, with merchant shops, tea stalls and grocery and food shops.

Stability the refugees had established over many years simply vanished with the floods.

One mosque, where perhaps they prayed for the future of Afghanistan, is surrounded by three feet of water, along with the cleric’s podium.

Kitchen pots, mattresses and ceiling fans were strewn in thick mud. Children splashed and swam in a pool of muddy water created by the floods, oblivious of the hazards of stagnant water that could give rise to fatal diseases. Dead animals lay in the open.

There are other dangers. Armed men come around at night and steal, leaving refugees few opportunities to salvage what it was not swept away.

Like in many other parts of Pakistan, the Afghan refugees were furious over the government’s perceived slackness in the crisis. Some could not fathom the magnitude of the crisis.

“”In fact the government opened the gates of a nearby dam without telling us. They never warned us. They are responsible for this disaster. We only ask help from Allah,” said Jawad Khan.

(Editing by Michael Georgy and Sanjeev Miglani)

Afghan refugees mull return home after Pakistan floods