International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Lives in flux in Afghanistan

Their faces are grizzled and deeply furrowed, even though the youngest of the eight is only in his early 30s. They greet me one by one, the shaking of my hand accompanied by the Arabic Muslim greeting “As-salam-aleikum.” They’ve kindly come to the International Rescue Committee office in the eastern Afghanistan city of Jalalabad to tell me of the experiences that led them to receive assistance from the IRC and how their lives have been since. They are all men; as in much of Afghanistan, it would be culturally inappropriate for me to meet women.

Two are from the border region with Pakistan, an area that is frequently the site of insurgent activity and military operations on both sides of the porous border.  Omar and his son Adel say they fled their homes in August following a spate of shelling from Pakistan. “We left everything behind,” says Omar, as he tugs on his thick, grey beard. “We escaped only with our lives.” Their family of 14 initially lived in a tent provided by the IRC while the weather was warmer, but for the bitterly cold winter they have squeezed in with relatives near Jalalabad — all 14 in a single room. Although they hope to return to their homes near the border, it’s uncertain — with the area still dangerous — when that might happen.

Three more of our guests and their families were displaced due to a land dispute in their home village. Two tribes claimed ownership, and Noor, Hekmat, and Mewa are among a group that fled following an armed clash last spring. More than 1300 villagers fled when the fighting escalated; the fortunate ones moved in with relatives, while those less so had to rely on aid or makeshift shelter. The IRC provided the families with household kits including kitchen and hygiene items, sheets and flooring, and jerry cans. The United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) provided emergency rations of food.

Hekmat —  wearing a brown pakol, a common Afghan hat made of lambswool and similar to the French beret —  is the most talkative of the three. “The international community has changed our lives,” he says. They’ve all been trying to find work as day laborers, either in construction or in the fields, but jobs are rare.

The final three all called Pakistan home for the past 20 to 30 years. Malak, Hazrat, and Mehzrullah fled Afghanistan while teenagers in the 1980s during fighting between the Soviets and Afghan rebels. Since then, all were living at the Azakhel refugee camp in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a few hundred yards from the Kabul River which flows from Afghanistan into Pakistan’s Indus. When the river overflowed during last year’s record floods, almost all of their mud homes were badly damaged or destroyed. When the floods subsided, the Pakistan government banned reconstruction of the camp, due to concerns that there could be a recurrence of the disaster.

So in the early fall of 2010, it was that natural disaster that prompted a reverse migration. Approximately 1,500 people from the camp packed into a 44-vehicle convoy to return to an Afghanistan many had never seen. They’d been born in Pakistan and lived there all their lives. And as they grew up, many were taught at IRC schools, now to be supported by us again as they returned to Afghanistan. But while the emergency relief helped them survive the journey and arrival, most now, have no idea where “home” really is or will be. The majority of the former refugees now live in tents in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Jalalabad, the second plot on which they’ve tried to settle. But already, there is a dispute surrounding ownership of the current plot. Optimistically, they say as long as the property disagreement lasts, they may be able to stay. But with only tents for shelter in the  frigid nightly temperatures, it is not a solution.

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