Afghanistan + 1 more

Afghan refugees back from Pakistan to bleak future

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By Jonathon Burch

CHAMTALA, Afghanistan, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Born in a refugee camp in Pakistan, Zarmat had never seen his homeland until he moved his family to Afghanistan six months ago. Home is now a crude tent on a barren field not far from the border.

His is one of nearly 4,000 returning refugee families which have settled at Chamtala, a dusty expanse outside the eastern city of Jalalabad, after the Pakistani government told them it was time to go.

"We have nothing. There is nothing here," says Zarmat pointing to four plastic covered mud shelters he and his family live in.

When he can, Zarmat works as a labourer, barely earning enough money to support his large family. But he insists he would rather be here than back in Pakistan.

"Life was not good. They started arresting people and told us we had to leave," said Zarmat, 23, who has a bushy beard and was wearing a white cap.

"This is my country. I am happy to be back but there is nothing to do."

Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, is grappling with an intensified Taliban insurgency and huge levels of unemployment, seven years after a U.S.-led operation ousted the hardline Taliban.

Over the past few years Pakistan, citing security reasons, has started closing refugee camps. This year the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has helped more than 274,000 people return to Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Since 2002, more than 5 million Afghans have returned after spending years, sometimes decades, abroad, most in Pakistan and Iran where they fled during 30 years of almost continual fighting.

"MASSIVE EFFORT"

While the majority of people are able to return to their homes, many end up in camps either because they have no land of their own or because their homes are now in battle zones in the war with the Taliban.

The head of UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, visited Chamtala on Monday and told the returning refugees he would appeal to the international community to do more.

Guterres later told Reuters a "massive effort" was needed to get Afghan refugees settled back at home, and insufficient help was coming for an effort complicated by the security situation.

"It's absolutely crucial a massive effort is needed. And this massive effort is necessary now more than ever because of the challenging security situation," Guterres said.

Security on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border is precarious with Taliban insurgents and their al Qaeda allies fighting both governments.

In a reversal of the usual flow of refugees, thousands of ethnic Pashtun Pakistani villagers took refuge in Afghanistan recently to escape fighting in northwest Pakistan.

Guterres said much more had to be done to help.

"Whatever has been done is out of proportion with the dimension of the problem. So obviously we believe that these efforts need to be intensified," he said.

Zarmat is fatalistic.

"We don't have any hope at the moment. We will just wait and see what the government and the organisations do for us," he says.

(Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Robert Birsel and Jerry Norton)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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