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.
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.
Technically, the 30,000 residents of the camps in Spin Boldak are not refugees, since they have not actually fled the country. But as "internally displaced persons," as aid workers call them, these Pashtuns, Kuchis, and other Afghans face the same threats faced by the millions of Afghan refugees that managed to escape Afghanistan over the past 23 years of war.
Mohammadullah, a farmer from the northwestern city of Maimona, says he fled seven months ago, after ethnic Uzbek soldiers raided a neighbor's house, killing seven men, and kidnapping three young girls. The next day, Mohammadullah and 30 Pashtun families packed their belongings on donkeys and left for Herat on foot.
"They said we supported the Taliban, but we were there before the Taliban," says Mohammadullah, surrounded by his five sons, two of whom work as laborers to support his family of nine. "It was all an excuse to confiscate our land. Those who are still there, they are living a life in jail. They can't even go out of their homes."
Barat Khan, who left the northern village of Char Bolak seven months ago, says he went back to his village secretly 12 days ago. He changed his clothes, spoke in the Persian dialect of the north, and spent nights with an Uzbek friend he still trusts.
"All my Uzbek friends told me to go back south, because the warlords will kill you," he says. One neighbor, an ethnic Hazara who owed Mr. Khan 200,000 Afghanis ($5, or the monthly salary for an average Afghan laborer), told Khan that he should run away while he could. "He told me, 'Do you want your life? If you love your life, you should go back, otherwise I will kill you.'"
Wali Mohammad, a farmer from Mazar-e Sharif, and chief representative for the 800 families at Awami Camp, looks forward to leaving this camp for another one being prepared west of Kandahar, the regional capital. There, the sand dunes will be about the same, but tube wells are being dug that will make these Pashtuns less dependent on the kindness of aid groups.
"The government has promised to dig wells there and that will be great," says Mr. Mohammad, who fled with his two wives and 19 children to Spin Boldak, in hopes of entering Pakistan. "But if they don't do that, we will try to go into Pakistan, which is difficult, because you have to bribe the guards 200 rupees per head. For my family, this is a big price."
For his part, Habib says he has actually started to think of the Taliban times as a "golden era," because at least there was a system of law and order and a sense of pride for Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. And he fully intends to take his lands back, even if that means restarting a cycle of ethnic violence.
"I can't say that I've lost my lands, because I will get it back from those people," he says. "Until my death, I will fight for those lands. These people will not be in power forever. And when they fall, I'll be waiting."