Correction to This Article
This article on Afghan refugees in Pakistan incorrectly described the location of Jalozai refugee camp. It is southeast of Peshawar, not southwest.

After Decades, Pakistan Forces Thousands of Afghans to Leave

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

JALOZAI, Pakistan, April 15 -- About the only thing Aziz ur-Rehman remembers about his life in Afghanistan is his month-long walk through the mountains to Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

He was 5 years old then -- too young to remember much about the events that drove his family out of Afghanistan. Most of his memories were born here among the sprawling mass of mud-brick homes, tin-roofed shops and rutted dirt roads that make up the oldest Afghan refugee settlement in Pakistan. And when the Pakistani government closes the camp this week, most of his memories will be buried here.

Three decades after thousands of Afghan refugees fled to this U.N.-backed settlement in northwestern Pakistan, the Pakistani government has begun to demolish homes and other buildings here. Citing concerns about extremist influences in Jalozai and the economic burden of hosting 80,000 refugees, officials set a Tuesday deadline for closing the camp, located about 20 miles southwest of the city of Peshawar.

Pakistan had pressed for an earlier closure but was persuaded to wait until after the winter by U.N. officials, the Afghan government and tribal elders.

Still, years after fleeing Afghanistan, many refugees like ur-Rehman are far from eager to return to a war-torn country they have never really known. "Life is better here in Pakistan. There is peace here, and I have my own life," ur-Rehman said.

Jalozai is one of more than 80 refugee encampments remaining in the country that are slated to close by the end of next year. So far, about 3,800 residents have left Jalozai for Afghanistan, according to U.N. officials.

More than 2 million registered Afghan refugees are settled in camps that stretch across parts of Pakistan's northwestern frontier and tribal areas. Although an estimated 3 million Afghans have returned home since 2002, the continued presence of millions of others in places such as Jalozai has become a thorny issue for Pakistan since the start of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations in the region.

A major U.S. ally, Pakistan has struggled for years to quell the rising influence of Taliban fighters inside Afghan refugee settlements.

A Western diplomat in Pakistan familiar with the camps said that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former U.S. ally with ties to the Taliban, has long held sway over extremists in the camp at Jalozai and in Shamshatoo, another Afghan settlement near Peshawar, making the camps a refuge for Taliban fighters. "They provide the perfect location for disappearing and recruiting, which is why we have been pushing for closure of these camps. You don't want to create a humanitarian crisis, but the security there is an issue," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

More village than camp, Jalozai has a thriving economy built primarily on the transportation of goods and services across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. Homes are modest but have provided shelter for at least two generations of largely ethnic Pashtuns with Afghan roots. With fighting still underway in Afghanistan, many in the camp are fearful of what they will find on the other side of the border.

"I don't want to go back. In Afghanistan, the situation is clear," ur-Rehman said. "Every day there are bombings there, or suicide attacks. You never know where the attack is coming from."

Many Jalozai refugees have roots in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, where the fighting has been especially heavy in recent years. More than half, however, were born in Pakistan. Three-quarters of the camp population is younger than 28, according to Pakistan's commission on Afghan refugees. Few have firsthand knowledge of life in Afghanistan.


CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company