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November 22, 2015

The emotional departure of three Afghan families who have spent 34 long years in Pakistan

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Just a month after the Kunduz fall -- that raised alarm bells for the world -- three Afghan families comprising 54 members and living in a remote village of Mardan, Duryal, packed up for their home country, Afghanistan.

Expecting a very warm welcome in their native village in Jalalabad, the farewell in Pakistani town was equally unforgettable for the Afghan families who had spent over three decades with them. Almost the entire village of over five hundred men was present to help them load the Jalalabad-bound trucks with luggage of the families.

Before they left for Saracha, their village in Jalalabad, the families had dinners and lunches hosted by the locals. "We haven’t cooked our meals for the last three days as every day a family gives us a treat -- a daig full of locally cooked Afghani rice is prepared for us."

Outside their homes, where they have spent 34 long years of their lives in Duryal village of Mardan, some men are loading trucks which will pass through Landi Kotel to reach Saracha village which is a few kilometers east of Jalalabad, the capital of Nagarhar province of Afghanistan.

Earlier the during the day time, Daray Abay, a powerful lady in her 70s who had been heading the families, accompanied by other women of the families, visited each home of the small town to say ‘goodbye’ to the local women and say ‘thank you’ for their love they had shown to them over the years. The gesture, however, would attract similar words of kindness and gratitude as this was Daray who would always provide milk of her lambs when surprise guests would visit any house in the town.

Although she is a refugee, Daray Abay is deemed a powerful lady who owned dozens of lambs and camels, earning a handsome income for her family. She would not help the locals with milk only but also lend money, completely free of interest, if anyone needed it. The locals always treated her like the elder of the whole village.

"We are extremely thankful for the hospitality that our Pakistani brothers have extended to us over decades," says Jan Muhammad, another member of the family.

"This is a strange time for us, with mix of happy and sad feelings," says Aman Khan, who was born and raised in Mardan and had never been to Afghanistan. "It is like we are leaving behind our homes and our own brothers."

"We don’t know our fate in a country plagued by wars and destruction. We still don’t know whether it is a good time for us to return, especially when the news of Taliban’s advancement in Kunduz and Tehar are coming out, but we want to put an end to the refugee life and return to our lands," says Jan Muhammad.

"We don’t have factories or huge job opportunities there. We have recently rebuilt our homes there with the hope that we will be able to find a two-time meal for our kids in the terrains of Afghanistan by doing some labour or shepherding our lambs," says Jalalay. Nangarhar province has agricultural lands but the refugees will have to rely on their lambs and labour work.

"No one wants to leave his home. The successive wars have not only destroyed our motherland but made millions of Afghans homeless. It is very hard to be homeless," says Jan Muhammad, adding it is the common culture, language and religion that had made things easier for them in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.

Some of the families of our relatives are still housed here in nearby towns such as Janga and Kandao and they will join us once we settle there. When asked if the relatively peaceful Jalalabad had to face the Kunduz like situation what will be their strategy, Jan Muhammad said their Pakistani host, Amanullah Khan, the local landlord, has advised them to not destroy their proof of registration cards.

"But we pray for a peaceful Afghanistan. We don’t want to be known for fighting wars any more. We also deserve good life like rest of the world. We want to prosper. We don’t know who is right or wrong. We also don’t care who is ruling Afghanistan. But the bloodshed should be ended," says Jan Muhammad with fear and hope in his eyes.

According to the UNHCR, Pakistan continues to host approximately 1.5 million refugees. Most of them are from Afghanistan who lives in refugee villages and urban areas. Since March 2002, the UNHCR has facilitated the return of approximately 3.9 million registered Afghans from Pakistan.

Of the total 1,535,358 refugees, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province hosts 62 per cent, FATA one per cent, Azad Kashmir 0.2 per cent, Islamabad 2 per cent, Punjab 11 per cent, Balochistan 19 per cent whereas Sindh has 4 per cent of the total registered refugees where most them lives in the port city of Karachi.

According to a report, the UN refugee agency has facilitated the return of over 50,000 registered Afghan refugees from different parts of Pakistan so far this year under the agency’s largest and longest running voluntary programme. Of them, some 25,900 have returned this year from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

However, the return of the families of Jan Muhammad, Jalaly and Aman Khan is not part of this programme. They say they don’t need any persuasion for going back to Afghanistan. They need peace at their home.

"Why would be one living away from his home? If there were no wars and we had the opportunity to find meals for our kids, we would have never left our land," says Mulla Jan, another Afghan refugee who also plans to return to Afghanistan.

Everyone wants to live and that’s what we Afghans are striving for by living in countries away from our own lands, he adds.

Afghan elders and analysts point out that the recent crisis in Kunduz had negatively affected the repatriation process as the refugees are now unwilling to return because of the security situation there.

"Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies and police have been harassing us here, so we are leaving. But there are still security problems there as the Taliban are still in a position to capture any Afghan city and start a fierce fighting with the Afghan government," says Haji Abdullah Bukhari, representative of Afghan refugees in Karachi.

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