Thousands of Afghans are making their way home after years and years living as refugees in neighboring Pakistan. For many of the migrants, their native country is now a foreign place.
KABUL — Migration has left deep marks on the lives of Afghans, adding to a sense of national despair that is often and poignantly reflected in the country's folk songs.
For decades, starting with the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, people have been forced to flee. Now, though, some of those who left are having to migrate yet again, this time back into Afghanistan.
So far this year, a record 30,000 Afghan refugees in neighboring Pakistan have packed up and returned to their native land for good. Another 3 million may follow in the coming months due to mounting persecution and uncertainty surrounding the legal status of their stay.
Earlier this year, Pakistan offered Afghan refugees a last-minute grace period of six months, but warned that after this, there will be no more residency extensions. Authorities there are also offering Afghans a financial incentive to leave, according to Nader Farhad, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"In the last month alone we saw a large number of refugees return because of the increased stipend and growing persecution in Pakistan," he says. "Each returning refugee is now paid $400, so a family of let's say five members can get up to $2,000."
In the past, the refugees were only paid around $200 — hardly enough to even cover the transportation costs.
While thousands have now decided to return to Afghanistan, most have no idea what they will do next. Tila Mohammad, a father of four, spent 25 years as a refugee in Pakistan. He returned literally empty handed.
"Look at my hands," he says. "With these bare hands, we are working in this open field to erect a mud house for the children to live in. Both governments Afghanistan and Pakistan promised us help. But we haven't gotten anything except the money given to us on arrival by the UNHCR."
Mohammad's story is shared by almost everyone repatriated back to Afghanistan from Pakistan. Deprived of many basic facilities in Pakistan, they lived a life of compromise and sacrifice. Malik Sedique, an elderly Afghan who migrated to Pakistan during the 1980s, says it doesn't look much different now.
"We were called refugees throughout our stay in Pakistan. But now that we're back, people are saying the "refugees' have returned," she says. "In all those years, many women become widows. Children became orphans. They should be welcomed back home warmly, but that's the case."
Almost every returning family claims to have paid thousands of rupees to the Pakistani border forces for permission to carry wood, animals, trunks, utensils and other goods across the border.
Many parts of modern-day Pakistan, including the whole of northwestern Khyber Pakthunwa, and many districts of southwestern Baluchistan were part of the greater Afghanistan before British rule over India.
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Photo: Shadi Khan Saif
An overwhelming majority of the Afghan refugees are ethnic Pashtuns, meaning they share an ethnic lineage with their Pakistani hosts.
Analyst Tahir Zaland believes the refugees bore the brunt of cold ties between the two countries that worsened after cross-border skirmishes last month. "Ultimately it is a good thing that these refugees return to their home country. But the government and aid agencies should create a better environment for them to integrate and overcome the early problems," he explains.
The Afghan government has promised to provide land to each repatriated family. In Kabul, land has already been designated for the refugees in four areas, but the allocation process is slow and complicated.
Still, some, like Dawlat Khan, a recently repatriated Afghan, are happy to be home. "Thank God it is our own country," he says. "One can die with honor in one's own land. In a foreign land even a prince isn't really a prince."