PESHAWAR — It's been nearly two months since more than 130 children were murdered in a school attack in Peshawar, Pakistan. The government has responded with some sweeping new laws, including victimizing the massive number of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.
The school massacre was carried out by members of the Pakistan Taliban, but the government says it believes Afghans in Pakistan harbor Islamist militants.
Rukhsana Naz has just given birth to a son in Peshawar, but government authorities will consider him officially an Afghan. It means that she must take her newborn and the rest of the family on a 10-hour journey across the border.
"I am worried for my children and their future," she says.
Her family is among nearly 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan — the largest refugee population in the world. In the wake of the Dec. 16 school massacre in Peshawar, the Pakistan government is stepping up pressure on them to go home.
Coffins of people killed in the Dec. 16 massacre — Photo: Ahmad Sidique/Xinhua/ZUMA
Rukhsana's husband Muhammad Sadiq says police have started harassing them. "A police officer slapped me yesterday and asked me to pay $100," he recalls. "I don't have that kind of money. For the last month, we have been under intense pressure."
Mushtaq Ghani, the spokesman for the provincial government in Khyber Paktunkhwa, confirms that the government wants them to leave. "We decided that the illegals should be removed immediately to be dispatched to their country," he says. "And those who are legal should be restricted to their camps."
Their plan is to deport or confine to refugee camps hundreds of thousands of people. According to Ghani, the provincial authorities want to do this because they believe Afghans in Pakistan harbor Islamist militants.
Rukhsana says it's simply unfair. "We are poor people and have nothing to do with militancy, but we are forced to leave the country."
So the family has rented a truck to make the 10-hour journey to Jalalabad, their hometown in Afghanistan. Rukhsana and Muhammad's 10-year-old daughter Sabeela Khan was born in Pakistan, and this will be the first time she has been there.
"I don't know if there will be a good school for me in Afghanistan," she says. "I'm really worried about my education. I'm also thinking about all the friends and teachers I'm leaving behind."
Pakistan is the only country she has ever known, and she is very anxious about fitting in as a stranger in a new place. "I don't even know what language Afghans speak," she says. "I don't know how I will learn. I will try to learn, but if I don't, then I will talk in Urdu. If they don't understand, I will remain quiet."
The Pakistani police demand money from them at every checkpoint. They don't have any relatives in Afghanistan, so they plan to rent a house or live in a tent. It's now winter and bitterly cold.
Yasin Khan, 15, and his family returned to the city of Jalalabad last week after spending more than 20 years in Pakistan. He's not going to school but instead earns $12 a day selling street food.
"My family and I were afraid to return from Pakistan," he says. "I was born in Pakistan. We had concerns and fear in our minds, but life goes on. It has to. We are settling into life in Afghanistan. My mother always says, before we go to sleep, that it is the people of Afghanistan who will make the country great again. I think about that, and it keeps me calm."