The land is lush in this river-fed region of eastern Afghanistan. The highway that leads to the Pakistan border, 60 miles away, passes fields of ripening wheat, cucumber and cauliflower. The nearby city of Jalalabad is bustling, with crowded sidewalks and traffic jams of produce trucks, auto rickshaws and tractors.
But for a large, nearly invisible populace of new arrivals, the welcome has been grudging, the work scarce and the terrain as barren as the moon.
They are natives of the region, but they have been away for years, living as undocumented war refugees in Pakistan. About 260,000 such returnees have arrived in the past 15 months, pushed out by Pakistani authorities and encouraged to return by the Afghan government, but lacking official status in either country.
In many ways, they are misfits and intruders in their homeland — nomads allocated bits of rocky ground to pitch tents and build cinder-block huts; surplus laborers in a market crowded with men who have fled insurgent fighting nearby; half-forgotten relatives trying to squeeze back into villages where no one has room to take them in.
“There is nothing here but dust,” said Hakim Khan, 55, a laborer and father of 10, standing on a stony hillside where the government said about 700 returnee families could settle at no cost. After seven months, most have only gotten as far as marking their plots with cinder-block walls, partly because of a dispute over who actually owns the land.
Meanwhile, they are camping in makeshift shelters, fashioned from bits of plastic and cloth and covered with sheets of tin. There is no electricity, and the only water source for 4,000 people is a single well. There is a one-room schoolhouse, but few of the children attend.
Inside Khan’s tent one recent morning, three cots were jammed together next to a gas burner and a stack of pots. Children ran in and out, chasing chickens. His wife, hiding behind a curtain, was asked to name her most valuable possession. “There is nothing valuable enough to mention,” she answered.
Most of these returnees never registered with the Pakistani government, which meant they were not entitled to cash payments and other forms of assistance by the United Nations’ refugee agency when Pakistani officials began pushing out more than 2 million long-term refugees two years ago.
Many others with official refugee status continued on to Kabul, the capital, where services and work opportunities are greater. But these undocumented families – mostly poor and uneducated, with few connections — have stayed behind, hoping to find a niche in their geographic and ethnic Pashtun homeland.
At the moment, the official border crossing at Torkham is closed, a punitive measure taken by Pakistan last month after a string of terrorist bombings there were linked to militias based on the Afghan side. The flood of returnees slowed to a trickle this winter, although U.N. officials expect it will resume when spring comes and the border reopens.
Meanwhile, those who arrived last year, piling their possessions in rented trucks, have tentatively settled in a variety of camps, communities and government-allocated tracts. Their only substantive aid comes from the non-profit International Organization for Migration, which provides shelter and basic supplies for the first few weeks, plus transportation to their destination.
“We are there when they arrive at the border, but what happens after that is a different issue,” said Matthew Graydon, a spokesman for the organization here.
One major problem is securing property rights. Most arable or habitable terrain is already claimed, and some arriving groups who attempted to reclaim family land have found that others had acquired it and expected them to pay. In the village of Karokhel, 500 families came back last summer, planning to put up homes, and instead became embroiled in a nasty fight.
“This is our ancestors’ land, and we kissed the stones when we arrived. But now it feels like a prison,” said Hajji Mahmad Jan, 65, who left Karokhel 40 years ago. Most families are living in tents, with wheat sheaves for fences, while the legal wrangle continues. “Just to fetch a bucket of water from the spring, we have to pay 50 cents,” he complained.
Another shock is the scarcity of jobs, with the national unemployment rate at 40 percent. Early each day, returnees crowd street corners in Jalalabad, hoping for temporary work hauling bricks or loading trucks. One recent morning, several glum men said they had waited for weeks without snagging a single job. One became so desperate that he spent months in a distant migrant camp, picking grapes for $5 a day.
Returnees also face job competition from villagers displaced by the insurgent conflict. Some have fled fighting between Taliban and government forces; others have escaped districts controlled by more violent Islamic State-linked militias. Jalalabad is relatively safe, with security forces guarding and patrolling the roads, so the jobless population has swelled.
The luckiest newcomers, others say, are those with relatives and communities to welcome them back. But they too may be struggling to get by. If a long-absent uncle suddenly reappears with an extended family of 20, Pashtun tradition demands that they all be accommodated, but resentment can fester and disputes flare.
In one farming village north of Jalalabad, bordering the Kunar River, five local families returned from Pakistan last fall. There was no space for them, and tensions soon erupted. Two brothers in their 30s, one an engineer and the other a business owner in Pakistan, found themselves jobless and living with their families in dark, mud-walled rooms that opened onto a yard for sheep and goats.
“For the first few nights, my children kept asking why we didn’t turn on the lights,” the businessman, Nanjialai Khan, said bitterly. The engineer, Rafiullah, confessed that he could not bear the idea of working as a farm laborer. “People here work hard. They use shovels,” he said, making a digging gesture and then showing his palms. “It is difficult when you have had a softer life.”
Another man from the same family said he had no choice but to pitch a tent in the yard of a relative with whom he had a personal grievance going back years. He seemed distraught and said he was unable to sleep.
“Here we have to live with our enemies, but we have nowhere else to go,” said the man, speaking in a whisper. He said he did not remember the village, and that his earliest memory was of fleeing across the border as a tiny child after Soviet forces attacked Afghanistan. “This is my country,” he said, “but I cannot see the future at all.”