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Newest flood of Afghan refugees: Pashtuns fleeing south

Pashtuns in the north fear persecution by other groups, the UN warned this week.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2002


Like many Afghans, Abdul Habib assumed that the fall of the Taliban last November would bring a hopeful future to his family and to his country.

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But instead, his peaceful life in the north-central Afghan city of Shibarghan fell apart. Neighbors of the Uzbek ethnic group began to harass him because he was a member of the Pashtun ethnic group, the same group that most of the Taliban belonged to. Soldiers under Uzbek militia leader Gen. Rashid Dostum raided his farm, and threatened his family.

"When the Taliban left, everything became bad, but we weren't Taliban ourselves," says Mr. Habib, who left Shibarghan soon after the Taliban fell eight months ago. He now lives with his wife and four children in a canvas tent in a sweltering refugee camp here.

"What can we do?" he asks. "If we go back, they will kill us, rape us. It's better to die in the sun."

As an estimated 1.6 million Afghan refugees return to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, a surprising trickle of ethnic Pashtuns from northern Afghanistan is heading in the opposite direction. Many are seeking safety in refugee camps in the south, far from ethnic minorities with growing power and in places where Pashtuns are a majority.

Numbering up to 120,000, these fleeing Pashtuns present a logistical and moral challenge to the new government, which already has difficulty coping with all the returning refugees. This week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that he had warned President Hamid Karzai that ethnic relations had turned volatile in the north.

Until the new government can guarantee the safe return of Pashtuns to the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated cities of the north, there is a strong likelihood that the government and international aid agencies will have to deal with these Pashtun refugees for months, even years to come.

"It's still pretty unstable in the North, and there are areas where aid groups can't go, because of security reasons," says Maki Shinohara, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kabul. "It's a bit difficult to deal with, because of the related issue of law and order. Pashtuns are being driven out by the majority populations in the North because they are of the same ethnic group as the Taliban."

To be sure, not all of the Afghans living in improvised camps in Spin Boldak, Herat, and Jalalabad are Pashtuns. Many are Kuchi nomads, driven out of their lifestyle by three years of hard drought and the deaths of their livestock. Others are local Pashtuns, who came here for handouts. But aid officials say Pashtuns will be the toughest group to resettle, because of their numbers and because their fears of harassment are well-founded.

The central government often claims that ethnic differences in Afghanistan are overstated and exploited by local warlords. Still, rivalries between Pashtuns and Tajiks have been one of the largest factual points in Afghan society for more than a century. What is clear is that the camps of Spin Boldak are harsh places, set at the edge of this border town, where heavy winds push sand dunes through the ramshackle city of tents and mud-walled shacks. Food comes, sporadically, from local aid groups, but camp residents say they must work as laborers in town to support themselves.