- The Washington Times - Monday, July 15, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan While U.S.-led coalition troops searched for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan during the past four months, some 500 trucks a day have been crossing the mountains from Pakistan to bring home thousands of refugees.
"This is now the fastest movement" of human population "seen in recent years," said Jack Redden, a U.N. spokesman based in Islamabad.
The movement began in early March, after harsh winter conditions ended in Afghanistan. So far, more than 1.1 million refugees, many of whom have been living in appalling conditions in camps in Pakistan for two decades, have gone home.
"We are now putting on extra staff to cope with the number of people that have been going out," Mr. Redden said.
The U.N. said between 2.1 million and 2.2 million refugees had been living in Pakistan.
But that estimate did not take into account those who had not registered as refugees, and Islamabad's figure of about 3.3 million was probably more accurate, Mr. Redden said.
"It's a porous border," and people fleeing the Soviet invasion more than 20 years ago were entering the country at several points and just settling wherever they could, he said. "Many were born in the refugee camps."
Nasr Bagh, the original refugee camp set up on the outskirts of the frontier city of Peshawar, used to be home to 100,000 to 150,000 Afghans.
"If you walked around in it, you felt you were in an Afghan city," Mr. Redden said.
The camp, once visited by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, has been flattened and hand looms used to weave Afghan carpets stand idle.
Until March 1, almost half of the population of Peshawar was made up of refugees, Mr. Redden said.
Not all the Afghan refugees are eager to return home. Those from villages in eastern Afghanistan, where the hunt for all Qaeda terrorists is continuing, have held back. Others have security concerns in northern Afghanistan.
"In some cases, there have been problems of ethnic differences, but more has to do with general lawlessness in certain areas." Mr. Redden said.
"We've got an average of 11,000 to 12,000 [people] per day, so we end up with bunches of trucks moving together. They're loaded up. The poles for the tops of their house are sticking out" of the trucks. "We advise people to bring their stuff back. Any building material you can carry with you, take it."
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees gives the Afghans enough money to hire the trucks, along with about a two months' supply of food.
Once the U.N. paperwork is complete, the trucks head straight for the border.

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