Afghans embarking on homeward journey amid uncertainty

by Delawar Jan

 PESHAWAR: Haji Khan is worried about his brother who ended his refugee status in Pakistan to begin another journey as a homeless person in Afghanistan. His brother’s native Gardez being in grip of insurgency, the choice is to settle in Khost in tents.

“This is an unwise and irrational decision. He failed to tell us what led him to leave Pakistan,” Haji Khan said while fidgeting in anger standing beside the trucks being loaded with returning families and their belongings at voluntary repatriation centre in Chamkani near here. “I am not going to leave Pakistan until I am thrown out,” he declared as he explained how happy he had been in this country for the last 33 years.

 As his brother was busy in the process of his de-registration, Haji Khan who lives in Khaki area in Mansehra district said he was concerned for his brother’s life. “Gardez is still a troubled region. He cannot go there. He has no house in Khost where he is going,” he said.

 Pressure mounted on Afghan refugees to return by December 31, 2012 as an agreement among United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan and Afghanistan is expiring on December 31, 2012. According to UNHCR, 1.64 million Afghan refugees are still living in Pakistan while 3.8 million have been repatriated since 2002.

 Sultan Muhammad’s last few hours of his 25 years’ stay in Pakistan were consumed in the process of de-registration. Though he was uncertain as to what he would do for a living in Afghanistan, he said his economic condition in Pakistan was no better. It was evident from his appearance. Wearing plastic slippers, he was in rags.

 Sultan Muhammad, who came to Pakistan unmarried, is now returning with a wife and nine children. He knows security, economic and weather conditions in Afghanistan were unfriendly. He knows he has no house in Afghanistan. He is clear that nobody is forcing him to leave Pakistan. “But we have to go back anyway, so it’s better now,” he said without showing any emotion.

 At a distance from him were two cousins sitting on a bench. They were waiting for the completion of their documents with a bittersweet feeling. “I was born and raised here. I have all my friends in Pakistan and am now going to leave them. I will miss them,” said 16-year old Ayub Khan, who lived in Haripur. “I will even not recognise our neighbours in Afghanistan,” he added. The teenager, however, said he was happy to return to his own country.

 His cousin Wali Khan said they wouldn’t be able to go to his native Kunduz because of violence. His family will settle in Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s capital considered to be relatively peaceful.

 “I will be missing cricket, but will try to resume it there,” said 7th grader, Abidullah, who was going to Afghanistan for the first time.

 Haji Alladad may be the only Afghan refugee who had spent 40 years in Pakistan. The man who now wears a small grey beard claimed his family came much before the refugees streamed into Pakistan. “I was born here,” he said.

 Hundreds of thousands of Afghans spent decades in Pakistan in the hope that their country would finally return to peace. Even today, Afghans are unsure what will happen post-2014, the year of foreign forces’ withdrawal. Officials say hundreds of thousands of Afghans have come again to Pakistan with no legal documents.

 Around one million illegal Afghan immigrants, according to Imran Zeb, joint secretary Safron ministry, were living in Pakistan. The government, he said, would decide on December 7 how to handle the illegal immigrants.

 The UNHCR which is facilitating voluntary repatriation at Chamkani, Timergara and Quetta says repatriation is picking up. Around 70,000 have returned home this year showing a surge in repatriation. 

 “The repatriation has increased by 38 per cent if we compare it to the same period last year,” Qaiser Afridi, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Pakistan, said. The number of families returning on weekly basis has witnessed a surge, he added.

 He said returning refugees were offered $150 per head, limited transport and non-food items that include jerry cans, buckets, soap, mosquito nets, sleeping mats, blankets, cooking set, plastic tarpaulins, quilts, sanitary kit and winter clothes. He added the offer would be valid till December 31.

 Raidi Gul revved up engine of his loaded truck before leaving for a long journey. He said he was preparing to embark on a 7-8 hours journey from Peshawar to Jalalabad. “We charge Rs31,500 as fare,” he said, sitting behind the steering of the decorated truck. As the truck rumbled on the pebble-covered ground, the returning refugees waved to bid farewell to Pakistan.


Afghan govt condemns Imran’s jihad comment

by Ayesha Hasan


Originally published in The Express Tribune on 13th October 2012


KABUL: The reverberations of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan’s political gaffe are being felt across the Durand Line.

The Afghan government has strongly condemned the PTI chief for his statement, said Farhad Azimi, deputy secretary of the Afghan parliament while talking to The Express Tribune.

“This is clear interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. We urge the Pakistani government to arrest people who support the Taliban,” Azimi said. Imran, while visiting child activist Malala Yousafzai in Peshawar on Thursday, had termed the ongoing war in Afghanistan against foreign troops ‘jihad.’

Azimi said Afghan President Hamid Karzai will meet members of parliament in a regular session on Saturday (today) to discuss the issue.

He is likely to issue some directions in this regard, Azimi said.

 Political slogan

Veteran journalist and political analyst Fahim Dashti said this is not the first time Imran has given such a ‘negative’ statement about Afghanistan.

“It is a political slogan through which Khan wants to gain more support. Clearly this is neither fair nor logical,” Dashti said.

Those who consider terrorism a threat would never support Khan in this stance, Dashti said, adding “even if they are supporting him, he will lose them slowly.”

He said the Afghan people had high expectations from Imran when the PTI emerged as a strong political entity, but he proved to be a conventional politician.

‘Imran supported by Taliban’

“The war in Afghanistan is not jihad. This is a war by terrorists against Afghanistan, its people and the entire international community,” said Hamid Zazai, managing director of Mediothek, an Afghan-German NGO.

He alleged that Khan is receiving support from the Taliban, and that by making such statements, he is just “paving the way for stronger Taliban support than what he is enjoying now.’

Published in The Express Tribune, October 13th, 2012.

Taliban jihad literature: What’s read in Afghanistan is printed in Pakistan

Originally Published in The Express Tribune: August 13, 2012


Outside Peshawar’s mosques, after Friday prayers, magazines with articles and pictures of attacks by the Afghan Taliban and violence carried out by Nato forces are distributed, most of the time for free. The magazines are usually accompanied by guidance on Shariah law. 

These magazines are available in a number of languages including Urdu, English, Farsi and Dari, reaching out to a wide-ranging audience. One such magazine in Urdu, called Nawaa-e-Afghan Jihad, published last month, has pictures of an attack in June on a hotel in Kabul.

Part of the caption below it reads:

“The Islamic Emirate’s “Fidayeen” attacked a hotel on 22nd June, 2012 in the Green Zone of Kabul killing 25 crusaders and 9 Afghan officials. Along with this, dozens of security personnel were also doomed to hell.”

Although in Pakistan such literature has gone under the radar due to a crackdown by law enforcement agencies, in Afghanistan, this material continues to flourish in provinces along the border including Kunar and Khost, according to locals from these areas.

Near the historic Qissa Khwaani Bazaar in Peshawar is a printing press market aptly called “Mohalla Jangi,” which means the “Neighbourhood of War”.  A narrow lane leads inside to around 2,000 printing presses, busy churning out paper printed with whatever has been ordered by the customer.

Ostensibly, the shops here print school books, government publications and promotion material for the development sector, the majority of which is distributed in Afghanistan. But behind closed doors, the industry here also caters to Afghan jihad literature.

Umer, who has run a business here for the last 15 years, says Taliban literature gets printed regularly from his market. “For those who take such orders, it’s just business. Times are bad and some printers need the money,” Umer adds.

Most of his clients are also from Afghanistan, but Umer claims he only takes orders from the development sector. “Those two buildings over there, they have printing presses in them,” says Umer, pointing to a building nearby that looks like a residential complex. “They have tried to hide what they are printing by not having the machines out in the open. But here at the market we all know some of the jihadi magazines originate from here,” he claims.

Just last month, one of the printers from this market was picked up by law enforcers on suspicion of printing Pro-Taliban material. Although he has returned, he refuses to meet with the press and has not come to the market since he was freed.

Another printer, Murad, says around four to five of the businessmen here take orders from the Afghan Taliban. “Peshawar is the first choice for anyone coming from Afghanistan. But now with police harassment of Afghans increasing in Peshawar, most head to Lahore, where the local police cannot distinguish between them and Pashtuns from Pakistan,” Murad adds.

Murad and Umer both know who are behind such literature, and even though they don’t like it, they don’t complain. “The Pashtun community is based on the system of revenge and if I complain against someone, their family may come after me or my family,” Umer confides.

Meanwhile, the union representative of the area, Niaz Ahmad, justifies the printing of such material. “Who are the Taliban? They are the defenders of Islam and they follow the true Islamic Shariah. What’s wrong with what they do?” Ahmad asks.

According to Muhammad Shafiq, a media consultant based in Peshawar who frequently visits Afghanistan, “People here in Pakistan and in Afghanistan already have a lot of anti-American sentiment. Such literature reinforces those beliefs and helps Taliban get recruits and funding.”

Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2012.

I Was Born to Hate Pakistanis by Faisal Malik Moonjazer

During the last days of our exchange program in Islamabad, one of my Pakistani counterparts, Delawar Jan, asked me,” You said you really hated Pakistanis when you were in Afghanistan. Where did all this hate come from?”

For a moment, I was silent and finally words came out.

“I was born to hate Pakistanis.” He smiled at me and said, “It’s good now you don’t.”

I am from a remote area called Sar-e-Pul which was part of Jawzjan province years ago. Now, it is separate province. I was selected, along with 10 other young journalists from different provinces of Afghanistan to go to Islamabad and meet a group of Pakistani journalists. A few months ago, I had applied for another three-month scholarship in Pakistan and was shortlisted for it. However, with my pessimism about Pakistanis and sense of hatred, I didn’t provide them final documents to get into the program.

On May 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm, I received an email from one of my best friends, who was also my boss for several years, about this very FES Afghan-Pak Journalists Exchange Program. This was 10 minutes before the deadline. I saw the application links were for Pakistani journalists and so I started ‘googling’ for the Afghan journalists application but couldn’t find it.

I called one of my friends in Khost province who is working with Mediothek for help. He said he was out of office and will send me the application once he returned to work.

I finally received the application form from Mediothek’s main office in Kabul via email from a respectful and  kind man who told me I should complete the application and send it by  tomorrow morning. But I completed it and sent it  within an hour. After several days, I shockingly found out that I was selected for the exchange program. I was happy but still nervous about going to Pakistan. But I decided to go this time for the program. My family also told me to visit Pakistani and see it real life.

After a  few days of staying in Kabul and learning about Pakistan, my thinking had already changed. I learned many things. Pakistan after all didn’t seem as bad as as I had always thought while growing up. We had guests speakers who talked about Pakistani culture and its 50 years of journalistic background. Every word that said about Pakistan was positive. I thought they were doing so as they were paid by Pakistanis.

During the last days in Afghanistan, when we visited the Pakistani ambassador in Afghanistan, he was quite open to us and answered all questions with smiles. It was then, for the first time, I accepted that I had misunderstandings about Pakistan.

He shared with us facts about Pak-Afghan relations that I had never heard. This was all in my country. Things got better when I went to Pakistan.

The first day we reached Bara Gali – one of the most  beautiful places I have ever seen in my life – we met Pakistani friends from different parts of the country. My Afghan fellows were tired because of the long flights and went to rest. But I came to talk to my Pakistani counterparts. They offered me to join them at trekking. First I wasn’t interested, but when I saw their enthusiasm and friendliness, which reminded me of my childhood picnics with my school mates, I readily accepted the offer.

There, I enjoyed interacting with them, especially Ms Beenish for bringing different subjects of my interest about Afghans, so I wouldn’t feel alone being the only Afghan joining them at the time.

Seems like I have thousands of memories from each one of them being so kind to us.

I remember Ms Ayesha Hasan, who interviewed me for a report in her newspaper, on our first day in Bara Gali. Mr Haris, who recited a number Persian poems from different Persian poets. I could say if he was better than me in sense of loving and memorizing Persian poems.

One thing that made me very happy was the invitation from one of my Pakistani counterparts, Ms Sundus Rasheed, to a concert.  It was a big concert with young singers and great audience. We all loved being in the front row at the concert, especially left empty for us. I watched and enjoyed the live concert for the first time in my life.

Pakistani singer Maria Fatima performing at the CityFM89 concert
Pakistani band ‘Bell’ at the CityFM89 concert

Ms Rasheed also took me to the office of Pakistan’s largest English daily newspaper, Dawn, so I can freely look over Pakistani newspapers for headlines about Afghanistan in Pakistani media. When I got to the archives, I met someone special –  Mr Ramzan Ali  – the librarian. He was a man of discipline. Everything in place- newspapers were archived by alphabets.  He made me feel as if I was at my own office. I asked him for lots of files. When I asked him if I could take photos of the headlines, he smiled and said, “When it is your office, you can do whatever you want,”

I am not comparing it but I remember once being punched in my face in my country while taking photos.

Friendship, kindness, good behavior, support, humility and honesty –  these were all things I found in my Pakistani counterparts. Looking at the photos and recalling the good memories –  every minute reminds me of their smiles and kindness.

I urge the media from  both countries to let us, the people, decide who is the enemy and who is the friend. Do not feed us with enmity from the day when we are born, instead, I request them to promote a culture of peace and friendship.

The Week of Breaking Stereotypes by Ayesha Hasan

The funniest person I’ve met in my life is not a Pakistani, neither an Indian nor an American. He is (surprisingly for me) an Afghan. The most poignant person I’ve met in my life is not a Pakistani, neither a British, nor a Bengali. He is (surprisingly for me again) an Afghan.
I spent the third week of June with 11 Afghan and 10 Pakistani journalists. Though we had gathered to understand our Western neighbor, I also saw a different side of my Pakistani fellows as never seen before.
Hailing from all four corners of the two countries, we, journalists, returned home with positive images, changed perceptions, unforgettable memories and most important of all: new friends.
Everyone had a unique story to tell, an idiosyncratic account of their lives and pied explanations and expectations, but some left an impression on my mind.

The funny side

I am grateful to Atif Fakirzada of Mediothek for letting us return home in “one piece”.
The frequency of his jokes, comical allegory and the his unique way of connecting the dots that raised a wave of laughter across the boardroom were exceptional. While some would laugh to tears, other would hold tight to their ribs.
He killed the preconceived notion, which at least I had about Afghans, that they are rigid and serious and rarely laugh, on the very first day he had arrived. Stereotype number one, gone there and then.

The emotional side

When Bismillah Jan, a Pashtun Afghan, said in his self-introduction speech on the first day that he cried if he hurt someone or vice-versa, most of us speculated he was making up. But then, I came to know that he actually cried after finding out about the recent death of one of the participant’s father. When he laughed, he would lay down on the floor, simultaneously avoiding Cem, one of the moderators, who would try to capture the moment in his camera.
Once Bismillah Jan went missing. We looked for him everywhere and later found him praying at the back of one of the notice boards.
The way he hugged my husband, when I introduced him to the group on the last day, and called him “Afghanistan’s son-in-law”, was one of the most respectful ways we both had been treated.
Contrary to the perception the world has about Pashtuns, and specifically Afghan Pashtuns, as being “harsh” and “uncompassionate”, Bismillah Jan showed us their new side. Stereotype two, removed there and then.

The assiduous side

When Malik Faisal Moonzajer from Sare Pol in Afghanistan told us that he was accepted at one of the best private universities in Islamabad, it was not less than a surprise for us. When he said it was a scholarship, we were flabbergasted.
He seeks education and refers it to his peers as well. He speaks fluent English and German and understands a little bit of Urdu, too. He belongs to a generation that grew up in war, was deprived of education, health facilities and freedom and held back from interacting with the world.
It was amazing and relieving, simultaneously, to see that he and his fellow colleagues, mostly in their 20s, have not grown into rebels after all. Stereotype three, broken there and then.

The writer is a Sub-editor at The Express Tribune and mostly writes about gender issues and human rights. She is also the 2011 Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Fellow at DW, Bonn.