- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2001

PAGHMAN, Afghanistan — Pakistan's military government has begun bulldozing the homes of Afghan refugees and forcing them back to a drought-stricken, war-torn homeland they fled years ago.
In the past two months, more than 11,000 Afghan refugees have been forced out of the camps in northern Pakistan.
Some have fled the region entirely, like the 438 refugees recently stranded on a ship that was denied entry into Australia.
But most have been forced back to Afghanistan, to villages destroyed during years of civil war.
Rahimullah Habibi fled with his family from the advancing Soviet army as it invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
They settled in a refugee camp in the border area of northwest Pakistan and over time accumulated savings to build a small mud-brick home, only to be forced out by Pakistan's army.
"They came and they destroyed my home [in Pakistan] with a bulldozer," Mr. Habibi said. "My house had eight rooms and everything was destroyed, just ruined.
"They told us we should repatriate. They call it 'voluntary repatriation,' but that is a lie. It is false. They gave us no choice."
He spoke outside tattered canvas tents set up in the ruins of the family's former village, expressing fear of life under Afghanistan's brutal Taliban regime.
Conditions in Afghanistan rarely have been worse than they are today: Civil war still rages in the central and northern provinces, three years of drought have dried most farmland to dust and, with little health care or education, poverty worsens by the day.
Pakistan's military regime has made no secret of its distaste for Afghan refugees.
In November, Pakistan closed its border crossing in the Khyber Pass to new arrivals, a harbinger of the present campaign to force refugees to leave their adopted homes.
Last week, authorities loaded 132 refugees from the squalid Jalozai camp, near Peshawar, onto a bus and told them they were being moved to a better camp nearby. Instead, they were driven to the border and forcibly evicted.
In Mr. Habibi's case, what happened was slightly less direct. He and his family first came to the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar two decades ago, while a war raged against a Soviet occupation army.
In the camp area, "there was nothing, no water," he said. "Whatever savings we had, we spent. We found jobs doing laboring work."
Eventually, the family saved enough money to buy a house and set up a transportation business, running buses between the Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Lahore.
Every year, family members discussed whether it was time to return to their home in Afghanistan. And every year they decided to stay in Pakistan, where at least there was work and a school nearby for the boys, although not the girls.
Then in July, Pakistan's government decided to clear the Nasir Bagh camp to build a housing project.
The bulldozers came and no alternative land was offered to the refugees.
Along with four other families totaling 30 persons, Mr. Habibi rented two trucks at $100 each.
They all set out for home with what remained of their belongings.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees gave each family the equivalent of $100, a plastic sheet and 650 pounds of wheat.
They drove for eight hours from the border to Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, then further west. They passed checkpoints where the Taliban regime has hung streams of cassette tape from poles as a warning that music and dancing are banned.
The family finally arrived in Paghman, where they once had a large house with a green field and their own well. Nothing was left but rubble and a mud wall riddled with bullet holes.
"When we arrived, everybody was crying. Everything had been destroyed," Mr. Habibi said.
He now must rush to build a new house before the winter cold makes tent living unbearable for his children.
Even so, he is luckier than some.
Among the refugees deported last week were elderly women and young children, some of whose families were still in Jalozai and came from a village in Sang Charak on the northern front lines.
They were all from the Tajik ethnic minority, which is loathed by the ethnic Pashtuns that dominate the Taliban regime.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees described the move as "incomprehensible" and immediately suspended a screening program it has run in Pakistan to look at new refugee arrivals.
The U.N. agency believes thousands more Afghans have been deported in similar ways in recent months.
Pakistan, which says it is struggling to cope with the burden of the 2 million Afghans now living in Pakistan, denies it is forcing long-term residents to leave.
"Only the newly arrived Afghans were deported," said Mohammed Riaz Khan, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.


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