Unpopular Afghan refugees debate stay, return home

Hazaras are among the most eager to return. But many still worry about safety.

Like many other Afghan refugees in his neighborhood, Reza Aloudal cheered the day the Taliban gave up their final stronghold in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

But even though the Taliban are out of power, Dr. Aloudal, who runs a clinic with his wife in a part of Quetta known as Hazara Town, is not quite ready to return with his family.

They are Hazaras, an ethnic minority distinct both for their Mongolian features - they claim descent from the hordes of Genghis Khan - and for their Shiite Muslim faith, in mostly Sunni Afghanistan. Under the Taliban, Hazaras faced discrimination, even massacre, and their safety is still not assured.

"The people that support the Taliban are still there, and they think that a Shiite is not a real Muslim," says Aloudal. "They think that if a Sunni kills three Shias, he will go to heaven, without question."

With the war seemingly drawing to a close in Afghanistan, the lives of some 4 million Afghan refugees hang in the balance.

Refugee officials say there's already been a trickle of returnees, mainly Hazaras and Uzbeks headed to northern and central Afghanistan.

This is welcome news for Afghanistan's neighbors, particularly Iran and Pakistan, which have hosted the bulk of Afghan refugees during two decades of conflict, at significant social and political cost. For Pakistanis, the Hazara refugees have been an especially uneasy fit, and many are eager to see them go.

Still, fighting between rival tribes, and the onset of winter, are prompting many refugees to stay put in their adopted homelands. And with as many as 400 Afghan families crossing the border into Chaman, Pakistan, every day, it's clear the crisis is far from over.

"It is way too early to start talking of major repatriation to Afghanistan, which is still a war zone," says Kris Janowski, spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Quetta.

"If things stabilize, then the last to come to Pakistan will be the first to go, because many of them don't have livelihoods, and no place to go. For the people who have been here longer, up to 20 years, it's a tougher decision to go back to a war-ravaged country."

In Pakistan, the presence of nearly 1.5 million Afghan refugees is felt in every major city, from Karachi in the west to Peshawar in the north. Newer refugees can be seen on the streets, begging, gathering firewood, or cutting grass for animal fodder.

Other, more established refugees have set up businesses, from restaurants to clothing shops to smuggling operations that bring electronics and other imported goods from Afghanistan into the tribal areas of Pakistan without paying duty.

Here in Quetta, the tens of thousands of refugees represent most of Afghanistan's ethnic mosaic. But the ones that stand out most - and stand apart - are the Hazaras.

Hazaras settled the hilly central regions of Afghanistan, and mostly avoided mixing with other tribes.

Making up an estimated 20 to 25 percent of the 26 million population, the Hazaras kept separate in religious ways as well, embracing the Shiite branch of Islam common in Iran. Most Afghans follow the Sunni branch common in Saudi Arabia.

In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, stereotypes about Hazaras abound. To those who like them, they are hardworking, clean, and honest. To those who don't, they are selfish, inscrutable, and brutal in business and in war. Under the Taliban, the latter attitude hardened into official discrimination. During on-again, off-again battles over Hazara-dominated regions of central Afghanistan, Taliban troops massacred Hazaras by the hundreds.

Mindful of such persecution, most Hazaras here in Quetta say they plan to wait until a secure peace has been established.

"When there is another government in Afghanistan, then we will go back," says Muhammad Arif, a barbershop owner who left Kabul, the capital, three years ago. "We want to go back to Afghanistan, because here we don't have anything."

Shopkeeper Naqeeb Sawari, also from Kabul, says he would be willing to leave everything he has in Pakistan - clothes, rugs, television, VCR, even weapons - to return. But he, too, is waiting for a stable government. "It's strange for me here, the culture is different," says Mr. Sawari. "Day after day, I become weak here."

In the Aloudal home, where 4-year-old son Sina and 2-year-old daughter Mina are busy tugging on the camera lenses of a foreign photographer, their parents consider the question of when to return. Dr. Aloudal wants to go soon, to set up a clinic for the poor. His wife Sima wants to resume teaching Persian literature at a public high school, and she looks forward to sending her children to Afghan schools, where they can learn in their native language, Dari (Persian).

But they worry Afghanistan may not be stable enough yet. In Kabul, Northern Alliance troops have kicked out the Taliban, but looting and armed robbery are common. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan yesterday called for the speedy deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force there. In Mazar-e Sharif, Uzbek warlord Gen. Rashid Dostum has grumbled about the composition of the interim government set to take office Dec. 22, saying Uzbeks should have a larger share of power.

"Generally, I'm in favor of this interim government, but I have suspicions [whether] it will establish human rights and women's rights," says Mrs. Aloudal, clutching her rambunctious son. "I think there might be fighting; not as bad as before, but they will fight. It all depends on the United Nations and the US. If they want to make security in Afghanistan, then it is possible to return."

Her husband agrees. "We have an interest to work for our people, for our country. But right now, it is not secure."

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