Afghanistan’s Four Decades of Tragedy, Through The Eyes Of A Refugee
For some, the last week of December and the beginning of the New Year is a time that reminds them of endless conflict in Afghanistan. From the mid-1970s till today, various armed factions vying for control of Kabul have not allowed Afghans to live in peace.
The conflict became particularly vicious when, in order to support the pro-communist regime in Kabul, the then USSR entered Afghan territory in 1979 and 100,000 soldiers controlled major cities in no time. To halt the communists with the support of regional and international powers, the famous Peshawar Seven Shura created the armed movement now famously known as the Mujahidin. Weapons and money flooded in from ideological rivals of the USSR. Afghans refugees, Pakistanis and many other nationals (Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens to name the more prominent ones) got training in Pakistan’s tribal belt for a full-fledged guerrilla war against the USSR.
In the freezing winter of 1979, millions of Afghans began to leave their homes, fields and well established businesses for safer places. Northern Afghans took shelter in Iran and eastern Afghans migrated to Pakistan. Due to the generous refugee policy of Pakistan at that time, some 109,000 Afghan took refuge in the country soon after the Soviet intervention in 1979. In coming years the number further grew, and from January to December 1980, around 80,000 to 90,000 Afghan refugees took asylum in Pakistan. They kept coming in their hundreds of thousands, fleeing the brutal conflict.
Eventually the total number of refugees in Pakistan rose to 3,270,000 in 1989, which amounted to 3 percent of Pakistan’s population at that time.
At the time, Khan Mirza was 18 years old, studying in Logar Province District Pol-e-Alam College. His calm and beautiful village was in middle of mountains and fields and Mirza would play football with friends. His father was wealthy and famous businessman in the area, who would go back and forth to Central and South Asia for selling and purchasing merchandise. Khan Mirza the lone son had never been asked to work for money but had always been advised to get an education. On his return from business trip to Central Asia, his father informed the family about the skirmishes in Afghan towns and villages between local religious fundamentalist rebels and the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (Khalq Fraction). Some fighting between various groups was routine few people took the issue seriously aside from elders who would gather to hear the news.
“In January 1979 we were inside our homes when we heard gunshots followed by thundering explosive sounds at dusk time” Khan Mirza recalls today in Peshawar’s posh Hayatabad quarter. “I still remember those fading voices of crying children, hurrying women and shouting men. Most of the villagers rushed towards the hills and only picked warm shawls to cover their bodies” he remembers.
Afghan forces captured Khan Mirza’s village Abchakan after a few hours of battle with local fighters and they brought tanks and set up checkpoints on different locations of the hamlet. Khan Mirza recalls that he scenic town became a horrible place and everyone decided to leave it before too late. “It was like doomsday. We knew most of us won’t see home again,” Mirza says.
He removes his spectacles today and cleans tears with a white shawl. Then he continue:
“I along with my parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents came out on the toughest journey towards the Pakistani border at Khost.” It was a harrowing experience – full of death and fear on the way.
For once the well-established family, the ordeal was not to end in Pakistan. They started lives in a tent in Hangu district’s refugee camp. The once pampered boy Khan Mirza tasted yet another bitter experience and began a career as a daily wage worker, loading trollies.
“My soft palms got swollen and became hard. My mother would cry when she saw me coming home in dirty clothes and with dust on my eyebrows and hair from work.”
After almost 10 years, fortunes again changed for the family and they shifted to a rented home in Peshawar. Now after 40 years of the Afghan war, Khan Mirza has inherited his father’s business legacy and lives in posh area of Peshawar with his big family. His children are getting an education in reputable institutions. He is a well-known car dealer: buying vehicles in big cities and bringing them to Peshawar to earn handsome amounts.
Dr. Fazal Rahim Marwat started his professional career during the Afghan influx in Peshawar, at the Afghan Refugee Commissionerate. He says that without the support of the international community it was simply impossible for Pakistan to provide appropriate support to refugees. “The West and Gulf countries’ rehabilitation efforts and aid work was phenomenal and they helped the Pakistan government and refugees in that tough situation” Dr Marwat recalls. “When the refugee camps and their operations were handed over to the Peshawar Seven Afghan opposition parties, however, the result was greater hardship for refugees seeking rations or other simple procedures. Life became especially harder for neutral Afghans under the control of the pro-mujahidin parties in the camps” he recalls.
Khan Mirza and many other Afghans who had supported Pakistani policy in the time of General Zia-ul-Haq used to consider him a religious hero. All those who opposed the mujahidin and their guerrilla war were villains to them: opponents of jihad and religion. When General Zia died in a plane crash, Mirza cried. So did many pro-mujahidin Afghans, including even fighters.
Today, however, Khan Mirza has a very different view of that conflict – and of the world in general.
“I say sorry to all peaceful nations for having mourned General Zia. The war that he supported destroyed our culture and infrastructure alike. In fact, I even apologize for opposing the political philosophy of Bacha Khan and Wali Khan, and their vision of peace and non-violence!”
But he has much gratitude for his adopted country, Pakistan.
“I live in Peshawar city and all of my children are born in Pakistan” he laughs. “The Pakistani government and people of this country stand by Afghans in any calamity, and I must say in modern human history this is the finest example of kindness” Khan Mirza believes. “Locals have shared homes, food and water with us all those years ago. Now relations among the refugees and locals have converted into unbreakable ties. Hundreds of Afghan women have married Pakistani men and vice versa” he says.
“No doubt for many Afghans today, Pakistan is home. But their Afghan land will be always a sweet spot in their memories. I flourished there,” an emotional Khan Mirza says. “War and conflict never allow a society to prosper. That’s why we want a peaceful and prosperous planet for every human being – hopefully including my village Abchakan,” he concludes.
UNHCR Spokesperson Qaiser Afridi says that right now 1.4 million Afghan refugees are residing in Pakistan and since 2002, around 4.4 million have gone back to their homes.
Abdur Rauf Yousafzai is a Peshawar-based journalist. He tweets at @theraufkhan