“In the tents again”: the lives of Afghans expelled from Pakistan come full circle

Torkham, Afghanistan – Gul Khan Kaka was about twenty years old when, after the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the war that lasted ten years, he had to leave his home and flee to neighboring Pakistan.

Four decades later, Kaka, now 62, is a refugee again – this time as an undocumented Afghan forced out of Pakistan as part of a government crackdown on “illegal” aliens.

“We left our homes and journeyed on horses and donkeys to Pakistan, desperately trying to save our lives,” he told Al Jazeera at a camp set up by Taliban authorities near Torkham, the main border crossing between South Asian nations.

“Forty years ago we lived in tents, and now we are in tents again. This is the whole story of my life.”

Gul Khan Kaka fled Afghanistan in the late 1970s after the Soviet invasion [Khudai Noor Nasar/Al Jazeera]

Tens of thousands of the nearly 1.7 million undocumented Afghans in Pakistan – some who have had homes and livelihoods for decades – have been crossing into Pakistan since November 1, the deadline for refugees to leave announced by the Pakistani government.

Once on the other side, they turn into refugees in their own homeland, impoverished by decades of war and conflict and now facing a serious food and employment crisis – a country where 15 of its 40 million inhabitants do not know where they will get their next meal.

The Taliban administration has established two main camps, at Torkham and Spin Boldak, along the Pakistani border to facilitate the daily transportation of refugees to their hometowns and villages throughout Afghanistan.

The United Nations estimates that more than 330,000 Afghans have left Pakistan since November 1. This week, Pakistan opened three more border crossings in southwestern Balochistan province to accelerate its expulsion campaign.

Police harassment and alleged extortion

At the Torkham camp, Kaka, along with thousands of others, waits their turn to be transferred to appropriate areas. Some families waited almost two weeks for them. Officials say they are in the process of documenting all refugees and arranging vehicles to transport them onward.

While they wait, they share accounts of alleged harassment and persecution by Pakistani police during their expulsion.

Kaka, who lived in Lahore for many years, said he faced serious challenges after the ultimatum was announced to all “illegal” migrants.

“I had just had two surgeries and I still felt bad, so after the police arrested me, I went to the doctor,” he said.

“After my arrest, everything I had on me was confiscated and later they decided to deport me. My family had no idea of ​​my whereabouts. When I arrived at the camp, I called them and they informed me that they were also on their way.”

Afghan refugees expelled from Pakistan
Some families waited weeks to be sent to their hometowns [Khudai Noor Nasar/Al Jazeera]

Liaqat Ullah, another refugee, told Al Jazeera that police confiscated thousands of rupees and gold during a raid on his home in Faisalabad in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

“While searching for money and other valuable items, the police asked for certain documents. They took 9 grams of gold and 375,000 rupees [$1,300]claiming that it is now the wealth of Pakistan and not Afghanistan,” he said.

“The women in my family and children were in shock until we crossed Torkham.”

Several refugees shared similar stories of “harassment, abuse and torture” by police. Habibullah said the Faisalabad police subjected him to torture and ill-treatment.

“The police treated us as if we were not human. They invaded our homes, abused family members, both male and female, and expelled us in very unfavorable conditions,” he told Al Jazeera.

Shahzadgy, a widow in her 60s who lives with her daughter and son-in-law in Peshawar, says officials gave her little time to pack and leave.

“They told us to go, they instructed the owner of our house to evict the Afghans and not give them their houses for rent,” she said. “We had a wonderful time with the people there, but the way the government expelled us is something we will never, ever forget.”

Afghan refugees expelled from Pakistan
Shahzadgy says she didn’t have enough time to pack and leave [Khudai Noor Nasar/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera contacted senior government and police officials in Peshawar city and Punjab province, but they declined to comment on the allegations.

“Hungry But Happy”

Habibullah said many refugees were forced to sell their property at half price because they were not allowed to take it back to their country.

“We had cows, other animals and property, but we sold everything at a reduced value,” he said. “They [Pakistani authorities] he only allowed us to carry 50,000 rupees [$170] when we crossed the border and confiscated the surplus from each family.”

But Habibullah, who is currently in the camp with about a dozen family members, said that despite being aware of the financial crisis in his homeland, he is happy to be back.

“We know that the economic situation in our country is dire and we anticipate that we will face famine, but we are and will be happy here,” he told Al Jazeera.

Izzat Khan remembers his days in Pakistan as a refugee, describing them as “wonderful and unbelievable”.

“We left behind our Pakistani brothers and sisters and we will never forget them in our prayers,” he said with a smile that soon turned to anger. “But I won’t say anything about them [Pakistan] government because they hosted us for years, but they kicked us out like a football.”

Afghan refugees expelled from Pakistan
Asadullah studied at a school in Peshawar and is currently unsure of his educational background [Khudai Noor Nasar/Al Jazeera]

The Taliban authorities have established a religious school in Torkham, where children study for several hours every day. The government also announced some job offers for refugees at the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, “but only for people with religious education,” as X Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, posted on his account.

Due to poverty, many Afghan children worked as laborers in Pakistan for years and never had the opportunity to attend school.

Asadullah (15) was luckier. He was born and raised in Peshawar, where he was studying at school when the repression against refugees began.

“I learned Urdu and English there. Now I don’t know what I will study here,” he told Al Jazeera. “I really miss my school and my classmates. I studied with all my heart, but they kicked us out.”

Syed Omer, another student from Peshawar, said he had to “suddenly leave school and everything else” and flee to Afghanistan.

“I call on the Taliban government to build schools for us and I would like to continue our education,” he said.

When children who have never been to Afghanistan speak, their parents stand nearby and wonder about the challenges they will face as they rebuild their lives in their homeland.

“I have three children, all of them were born and raised in Pakistan. When I told them we had to go to Afghanistan, they were all surprised and asked, “Our country is Pakistan, not Afghanistan,” said one father in Torkham.


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