Key Border Town Faces Life Without Afghan War

As a new government sets up in Kabul, many of the aid agencies, rebels, and refugees who have been based in Peshawar are packing their bags

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AS Afghanistan's civil war comes to an end, residents of Pakistan's border town of Peshawar are growing worried about the town's future.

For the last 14 years, Peshawar's identity was forged by the Afghan civil war. The town hosted 3 million refugees, it was a major trading post for guns and drugs and a conduit for international arms and aid for the Afghan rebels. And the huge numbers of able-bodied refugees, working in factories and construction, made the cost of labor very cheap. Now Peshawar must consider life without the war.

"Peshawar will change," says Zahid Bashir of Peshawar's chamber of commerce. "The smuggling trade will drop off substantially. Prices will also rise, we expect by nearly 40 percent. Many people will have to change their businesses as they depend on the Afghans."

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Even the foreign aid agencies are packing their bags. Agency workers say they are looking to set up operations in Kabul as soon as possible.

Workers for the French-run Avicen agency say they already run immunization programs in Gazni, Afghanistan; their future in Peshawar looks limited. "Everything is so uncertain," one Avicen worker says. "We could be going to Kabul. We could be going to Islamabad. Who knows? Maybe the funding will just stop."

Several agencies are worried that their donors will channel funding into Kabul, forgetting about Peshawar altogether. "They seem to think that the only true aid workers are in Kabul," says an employee from a British-run aid foundation.

But with the communist government out of power in the Afghan capital, agencies working from Kabul should have access to the whole country. And already Peshawar-based Afghans are going back. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees claims more than 200 families have so far chosen to move back to Afghanistan. UN officials expect the figure to increase soon.

Government officials and aid workers agree that full repatriation is just a matter of time. The Afghans are waiting for some infrastructure in their country.

"At the moment, the Afghans can't even rent a home in Afghanistan," a UN official says. "There are no houses. But things will improve."

In fact, signs of movement are springing up all over Peshawar. In the refugee camps many are packing their belongings onto unwieldy-looking trucks. Wealthier Afghans have vacated their houses, leading to a fall in Peshawar's rents.

Peshawar's money-changers are doing a roaring trade selling afghanis (the Afghan currency) for Pakistani rupees. The heavy trading has pushed down the value of the afghani, cutting its rate against the rupee by about 80 percent since Christmas, according to long-term residents.

There is no panic yet in Peshawar. No one expects 3 million refugees to leave immediately. Until there is an infrastructure in Afghanistan, many of the returning refugees will continue to depend on Peshawar for their survival. City officials are even hoping to increase long-term trade with the central Asian republics in the former Soviet Union. Until that happens, Peshawar is going to be one quiet place to live.

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