Afghanistan + 1 more

Afghans resist closure of their Pakistani camp

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By Zeeshan Haider

JUNGLE PIR ALIZAI, Pakistan, June 25 (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities want to close down the Jungle Pir Alizai refugee camp and send its residents to Afghanistan because they say the camp is infested with militants, guns and drugs.

A desolate settlement of mud-walled homes sprawling across a desert ringed by distant mountains, the camp in southwest Pakistan was first set up after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Pakistan now wants to close the refugee camp and send its inhabitants home, or resettle them in another camp.

Pakistan says its Afghan refugee camps have become havens for the Taliban, who are fighting an intensified insurgency in Afghanistan, and it has earmarked four camps for closure this year, including Pir Alizai.

The U.N. refugee agency, which is running a voluntary repatriation programme for Afghans, gave up on the camp in 2005 after it lost its "humanitarian value", an agency official said.

"It could no longer be considered, by UNHCR standards, a humanitarian camp. There was trafficking of arms, drugs and miscreants were living there," said the official, who declined to be identified.

But closing the camp won't be easy.

Afghans say they don't want to go home to a country at war, while many inhabitants of the camp say they are not even Afghans, but Pakistanis -- and they have the papers to prove it.

One resident, Ahmedullah, has spent his whole life in Pakistan as a refugee and says he desperately wants to go home. But the unrelenting war is stopping him.

"Can you tell me anyone on earth who does not love his home, and does not want to live in his home?" the lanky 16-year-old shouted as he stood among a crowd of youngsters outside a grocery shop in the camp.

"Give us peace and we will go home."

Most of the Afghans living in small houses along dusty lanes, 50 km (30 miles) from the Afghan border, come from the Afghan south where over the past 12 months or so the heaviest Afghan fighting has raged since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.

Abdul Ghani, a bearded 65-year-old, said many people had been killed, including hundreds of Taliban militants, by NATO forces in his home region of Panjwai, in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

The inhabitants of Pir Alizai have already demonstrated their opposition to the closure of their camp.

Last month, two people were killed and five wounded in a shootout after security forces demolished houses in the camp.

"WE'RE PAKISTANIS"

Another problem facing the authorities hoping to close the camp and send its residents to Afghanistan is that many of the inhabitants say they are Pakistanis, not Afghans at all.

According to a 2005 U.N. census, the camp was home to 35,000 Afghans. But thousands of Pakistani villagers fleeing drought and tribal feuds have moved to the camp, raising its total population to more than 100,000, residents say.

Some residents said up to 80 percent of inhabitants were Pakistani ethnic Pashtuns. Pashtuns live on both sides of the largely unmarked border that was drawn during British colonial times through their lands.

"We're Pakistanis. I have as much right to be in Pakistan as you have. Why are you forcing me to Afghanistan?" said Haji Zardad Kakozai, head of a 25-member residents' committee that manages camp affairs.

As Kakozai spoke, other members of the committee took out Pakistani identity cards and held them up for inspection.

"All of us have decided that if the government wants to send us to jail, we will go to jail. If it kills us, we will die, but we will not leave," Kakozai said.

Pakistani officials say many Afghans have acquired identity cards and some have mingled into the population through marriage. Many Afghans live and run businesses in Pakistani cities and towns across the country.

"They carry both identities. They show their Afghan cards when they get aid meant for refugees, otherwise they show themselves as Pakistanis," said a government official in the provincial capital, Quetta.

Kakozai, a heavy-set Pashtun with a big turban wrapped around his head, also denied there were any al Qaeda or Taliban guerrillas hiding out in the camp.

"I have told authorities 2,000 times that if you find a single al Qaeda man or training camp for militants you should slaughter all 25 of us," he said, referring to the committee.

More than 4.6 million Afghans have gone home from Pakistan and Iran since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. But about 3 million Afghans are still in Pakistan and 2 million in Iran.

Iran recently forced about 100,000 Afghans back and the United Nations has urged Pakistan not to send its refugees home, saying impoverished Afghanistan was already swamped by the people evicted from Iran.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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