Muhammad Asif, aged 22, was born in the Kacha Gari refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Ever since, the provincial capital has been the only home he has known. "I have mixed emotions. I want to go to my homeland, but I will surely miss Peshawar," he told IRIN at the Takhtabaig Voluntary Repatriation Centre near the city.
According to UNHCR, most of the refugees are returning to the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar and the adjacent Kabul Province. The agency plans to assist some 600,000 Afghans return to their country this year from Pakistan.
The repatriation effort is expected to focus on the 1.5 million refugees living in some 200 camps across the country, because 82 percent of the 1.5 million Afghan returnees last year had been living in Pakistani cities.
But for many refugees it will prove a difficult transition. Working as a mechanic in Pakistan, he used to earn a modest living for his wife and three children, but now his future is uncertain. "I will try to stick to my work as a mechanic," he said.
His father, Muhammad Shirin, however, was more confident. "We were longing to go back. Now I have a chance and I hope we will spend the rest of our lives in Afghanistan," he told IRIN. Like his son, Shirin is a mechanic and is taking all his tools along, hoping to make a fresh start in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, just across the border.
Each of the returnees was given a small travel grant, some wheat, plastic sheeting and soap, but the vast majority were dissatisfied with what they received. "The amount of assistance is too little to make a fresh start in our shattered country," Shirin asserted.
The 2003 repatriation programme officially began offering assistance on 2 March after UNHCR staff across Pakistan had undergone a month's training. The effort is initially concentrated on the camps in the NWFP and is expected to extend to camps in the southwestern Balochistan Province, the urban centres of the capital, Islamabad, and the southern port city of Karachi.
Operations in the NWFP started at the Kacha Ghari camp, where UNHCR said refugees were under pressure from the Pakistani authorities to leave so that a housing scheme could be built on the site of the camp.
Many Afghans are uncomfortable with the idea of having to leave. "We were being pushed to leave Kacha Gari and we really don't know where we will end up," Muhibullah, a young Afghan mason, told IRIN. Such feelings were expressed by on Wednesday's convoy.
Ayub Khawreen, a UNHCR public information official, told IRIN that the agency was doing its best to minimise the factors which could affect the voluntary nature of repatriation. "We do not promote repatriation, and it's not forcible," he told IRIN.
Khawreen said the agency was concentrating on refugees in camps because they were relatively vulnerable and poor. Most originate from rural parts of Afghanistan. "As most of the returnees last year went from Pakistani cities to Afghan urban centres, particularly Kabul - that saturated the Afghan cities," he said. This year the hope is that large numbers of refugees from camps would go back to villages, thereby creating a balance between returns to urban and rural areas.
However, Abdul Hafeez, a project director for repatriation with Pakistan's Commissioner for Afghan Refugees (CAR), told IRIN that the focus on the camps was influenced by the fact that the inmates had lived there for a long time, were quite settled and therefore reluctant to leave.
"They should go back and participate in the reconstruction of their country," he said, adding that most of the refugees had voluntarily opted for repatriation. "Kacha Gari is a different issue. Afghans have been living there for a long time, and it's high time for them to leave," he asserted. The CAR had earlier issued notices to the Kacha Gari residents asking them to leave for Afghanistan or move into other refugee camps in the area so that the government could go ahead with its planned housing project.
Meanwhile, Kaku Gul, a 40-year-old mother of three remains optimistic. "Now our country is free. We should go there, for we will achieve nothing by living in foreign countries," she told IRIN.
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