‘In tents again’: Life comes full circle for Afghans expelled from Pakistan

Many Afghans fled to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s – only to be forcefully returned to a homeland in crisis.

Afghan refugees
A view of a camp at Torkham border for Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan [Khudai Noor Nasar/Al Jazeera]

Torkham, Afghanistan – Gul Khan Kaka was in his early 20s when he had to abandon his home and flee to neighbouring Pakistan after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, a war that lasted a decade.

Four decades later, Kaka, now 62, is a refugee again – this time as an undocumented Afghan driven out of Pakistan as part of a government crackdown on “illegal” foreigners.

“We left our homes, embarking on a journey on horses and donkeys towards Pakistan, desperate to save our lives,” he told Al Jazeera at a camp established by the Taliban authorities near Torkham, the main border crossing between the South Asian nations.

“Forty years ago, we lived in tents and now we find ourselves in tents again. That’s the entire of my life story.”

Afghan refugees expelled from Pakistan
Gul Khan Kaka fled Afghanistan in the late 1970s after the Soviet invasion [Khudai Noor Nasar/Al Jazeera]

Tens of thousands of nearly 1.7 million undocumented Afghans in Pakistan – some for decades, with homes and livelihoods – have been crossing into Pakistan since November 1, the deadline announced by the Pakistani government for the refugees to leave.

Once on the other side, they turn into refugees within their own homeland, impoverished by decades of wars and conflict and now facing a severe food and jobs crisis – a country where 15 of its 40 million people do not know where their next meal will come from.

The Taliban administration has set up two main camps, in Torkham and Spin Boldak, along the Pakistan border to facilitate the daily transfer of the refugees to their respective hometowns and villages across Afghanistan.

The United Nations estimates that more than 330,000 Afghans have left Pakistan since November 1. This week, Pakistan opened three more border crossings in southwestern Balochistan province to expedite its expulsion campaign.

Police harassment, extortion alleged

At the camp at Torkham, Kaka along with thousands of others wait for their turn to be transferred to their respective areas. Some families had been waiting for nearly two weeks. Officials say they are in the process of documenting all the refugees and arranging vehicles to transport them onwards.

As they wait, they share accounts of the alleged harassment and persecution by the Pakistani police during the expulsion.

Kaka, who lived in Lahore for many years, said he faced significant challenges after the ultimatum for all “illegal” migrants was announced.

“I had just undergone two surgeries and still felt unwell, so I had gone to see a doctor when the police arrested me,” he said.

“After the arrest, they confiscated everything I had on me and later decided to deport me. My family had no knowledge of my whereabouts. Upon arrival here in the camp, I called them and they informed me they were also on their way.”

Afghan refugees expelled from Pakistan
Some families had been waiting for weeks to be sent to their native places [Khudai Noor Nasar/Al Jazeera]

Liaqat Ullah, another refugee, told Al Jazeera the police confiscated thousands of rupees and gold during a raid on his home in Faisalabad in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

“The police demanded some documents while searching for money and other valuables. They took away 9 grams of gold and 375,000 rupees [$1,300], claiming it was Pakistan’s wealth now and not Afghanistan’s,” he alleged.

“The female members of my family and children were in shock until we crossed Torkham.”

Several refugees shared similar stories of police “harassment, bullying and torture”. Habibullah said the police in Faisalabad subjected him to torture and mistreatment.

“The police treated us as if we were not human. They raided our houses, abused both the male and female family members, and expelled us in very adverse conditions,” he told Al Jazeera.

Shahzadgy, a widow in her late 60s who was living with her daughter and son-in-law in Peshawar, said the officials gave her little time to pack and leave.

“They told us to go, instructed the owner of our house to evict Afghans and not give home on rent to them,” she said. “We spent a great time there with the people but the way the government expelled us, we will never forget, never ever.”

Afghan refugees expelled from Pakistan
Shahzadgy says she was not given enough time to pack and leave [Khudai Noor Nasar/Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera reached out to senior government and police officials in Peshawar city and Punjab province, but they refused to comment on the allegations.

‘Hungry but happy’

Habibullah said many refugees were compelled to sell their possessions at half-price since they were not allowed to take them back to their country.

“We had cows and other animals and belongings, but sold everything at a reduced value,” he said. “They [Pakistani authorities] only allowed us to carry 50,000 rupees [$170] when we were crossing the border and confiscated the excess amount from every family.”

But, Habibullah, now residing in the camp with a dozen family members, said despite being aware of the financial crisis in his homeland, he was happy to be back.

“We know the economic situation in our country is dire and we anticipate facing hunger, but we are and will be happy here,” he told Al Jazeera.

Izzat Khan remembers his days in Pakistan as a refugee, describing them as “marvellous and incredible”.

“We left behind our Pakistani brothers and sisters and we will never forget them in our prayers,” he said with a smile, which soon turned to rage. “But I will not say anything about their [Pakistan] government as they hosted us for years but kicked us out like a football.”

Afghan refugees expelled from Pakistan
Asadullah was studying in a school in Peshawar and is unsure of his education now [Khudai Noor Nasar/Al Jazeera]

The Taliban authorities have established a religious school at Torkham to teach the children every day for a few hours. The government has also announced some job vacancies for the refugees in the Vice and Virtue Ministry, “but only for those with a degree in religious education,” as posted by Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban’s chief spokesperson, on his X account.

Due to poverty, many Afghan children had worked as labourers for years in Pakistan and never had the opportunity to attend school.

Asadullah, 15, was more fortunate. He was born and raised in Peshawar, where he was studying in a school when the crackdown on refugees began.

“I was getting an education in Urdu and English languages there. Now I don’t know what I will study here,” he told Al Jazeera. “I really miss my school and my classmates. I was studying wholeheartedly but they expelled us.”

Syed Omer, another student from Peshawar, said he had to “abruptly abandon school and everything else” and flee to Afghanistan.

“I urge the Taliban government to build schools for us and I would like to continue my education,” he said.

As the children who had never set foot in Afghanistan speak, their parents stand nearby, pondering over the challenges ahead for them as they rebuild their lives in their homeland.

“I have three children and all of them were born and raised in Pakistan. When I told them we had to go to our country Afghanistan, they were all surprised and asked: ‘Our country is Pakistan, not Afghanistan,” said one of the fathers at Torkham.

Source: Al Jazeera