U.N. Ends Food Aid to Afghan Refugees After 16 Years
NASIR BAGH REFUGEE CAMP, Pakistan (AP) _ The United Nations has handed out its last bag of grain to Afghan exiles in poor camps in Pakistan’s tribal frontier province.
On Oct. 1, nearly 16 years after the first wave of Afghans flooded into Pakistan, U.N. relief workers stopped supplying food to an army of refugees that now numbers about 1.6 million.
U.N. officials say most refugees still living in Pakistan have found jobs and can feed their families. A few thousand _ mostly widows and orphans _ will continue to get cooking oil, said Jacques Mouchet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Pakistan.
Refugees have prospered in Pakistan largely because they have been allowed to find work outside the camps, government officials say.
But with Pakistan’s unofficial unemployment rate around 30 percent, Pakistanis are increasingly resentful of jobs lost to refugees, said Mohammed Yunus, a government spokesman in Peshawar, the provincial capital.
Many refugees feel the food cutoff is an attempt to force them to go home despite a bloody civil war.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, also has protested the U.N. decision. She wants the United Nations to keep feeding the refugees, while at the same time helping build hospitals and schools inside Afghanistan in an effort to encourage the Afghans to go home on their own.
Any refugee who agrees to return is given 3,300 rupees (about $100) and 660 pounds of grain by the United Nations.
Government officials say most Pakistanis want the refugees to leave, but do not want to be viewed as abandoning fellow Muslims.
Ms. Bhutto likely would face a revolt from conservative religious opponents if she tried to push the refugees out, something she says she will not do.
But the United Nations is gradually withdrawing from the refugee camps, turning over control of health and education to the refugees themselves while urging them to go home.
``We have been here for 15 years. Fifteen years of care and maintenance is too long a period ... we have to prepare them to go home and to end this dependency syndrome,″ said Mouchet.
Many refugees have been on Pakistan’s frontier since 1979 when Russian soldiers marched into Afghanistan to prop up a Marxist government.
Others came in 1992 after Afghan insurgents ousted the communists and installed an Islamic government, then turned their guns on each other. The fighting killed about 25,000 people _ mostly civilians living in Kabul, the Afghan capital _ and sent nearly 1 million people fleeing for safety.
In Nasir Bagh camp, a desolate stretch crowded with sunbaked-mud homes on the outskirts of Peshawar, an 80-year-old refugee said he returned to Afghanistan last year but ferocious fighting drove him back to Pakistan.
Too poor to afford a bus ride, he said he had walked one week to reach his home near Kabul. ``But when I saw the fighting and the killing, I came running back,″ the man, who gave his name as Lawary, said through an interpreter.
Lawary said he has no choice but to stay in Pakistan.
``Even if we have nothing here at least there is peace and our women are safe. We won’t go back,″ he said.
But others are returning.
At the border town of Torkham, Sana Gul packed his family and few possessions into a small pickup truck and set off for Afghanistan, nearly 10 years after fleeing to Pakistan.
``We are helpless,″ he said. ``We don’t feel safe, but we have no money. We have nothing here. What can we do?″
Many Pakistanis warmly welcomed more than 5 million Afghan refugees at the height of the Russian occupation, but their attitude has hardened, said Yunus, the government spokesman.
He said Pakistanis are concerned about rising unemployment, increasing competition from Afghan businessmen and continuing use of good farm land for refugee camps.
But the most damaging event was a savage attack last month on the Pakistani embassy in Afghanistan’s capital.
``Look at what we have done for them for 15 years and they smash our embassy in Kabul,″ said Yunus. ``Now Pakistanis have to think twice. The attitudes have changed. They want them to go home.″