‘We need peace, land to go home’: Afghan refugees tell UN

In this Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020 photo, Afghan refugee Hukam Khan narrates the situation of his country, at Kabobayan refugee camp, in Peshawar, Pakistan. (AP)
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Updated 17 February 2020

‘We need peace, land to go home’: Afghan refugees tell UN

  • After four decades of war and conflict, more than 1.5 million Afghans still live as refugees in Pakistan
  • The United States and the Taliban appear to have inched closer to a peace deal, agreeing as a first step to a temporary “reduction in violence”

KEBABYAN CAMP, Pakistan: Hukam Khan isn’t sure how old he is, but his beard is long and white, and when he came to Pakistan 40 years ago fleeing an earlier war in Afghanistan, his children were small, stuffed onto the backs of donkeys and dragged across rugged mountains to the safety of northwestern Pakistan.

Back then the war was against the former Soviet Union and Khan was among more than 5 million Afghans forced to become refugees in Pakistan, driven from their homes by a bombing campaign so brutal it was referred to as a “scorched earth” policy.

After four decades of war and conflict, more than 1.5 million Afghans still live as refugees in Pakistan, feeling abandoned by their own government, increasingly unwelcome in their reluctant host country and ignored by the United Nations.

Now, for the first time in years, there’s a faint possibility they might eventually return home. The United States and the Taliban appear to have inched closer to a peace deal, agreeing as a first step to a temporary “reduction in violence.”
 

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If that truce should hold, the next step could be a long-sought-after agreement between Washington and the Taliban to end Afghanistan’s current war, now in its 19th year.

The agreement would return American troops home and start negotiations between the warring Afghans to bring peace to their shattered country.
Against the backdrop of a possible peace deal, Pakistan is hosting a conference Monday attended by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to recognize 40 years of Afghans living as refugees.

Also attending the conference in the capital, Islamabad, is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, whose job would be to help the Afghans return home. It won’t be easy.

Many refugees have already tried going back — lured by promises of help and hope from the international community and from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — only to find there was neither food nor shelter for them.

Many also discovered they were no longer welcome in the villages they had left decades earlier. Disillusioned, they returned to Pakistan and to Iran, while tens of thousands of other Afghans paid smugglers and risked their lives to escape to Europe. From there, many were later loaded on planes and returned to war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Grandi called the forced return of refugees from Europe “shameful” in an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday. “I do ... fervently hope that the countries like Iran and Pakistan, who have hosted so generously ... don’t take their example from much richer countries that are shutting borders, not only to Afghans, but to many other refugees,” he said.

While the specter of a US-Taliban peace deal raises hope that the refugees will eventually return home, Grandi said, “I think this time around, the people who are still left outside will be very cautious in their judgment. They would want to have guarantees that it can be sustainable.”

Another challenge will be raising the vast sums of money needed to help return home not only refugees abroad, but also the millions of Afghans who are internally displaced inside their own country. The world has grown tired of sending money to a country with such endemic corruption, which has driven poverty levels up despite billions of dollars in aid since 2001.

Just last month, a US government watchdog said the Afghan government was more interested in ticking off boxes to demonstrate compliance than making real inroads to curb corruption.

Poverty levels in Afghanistan are climbing. In 2012, 34 percent of Afghans were listed as below the poverty level, living on $1 a day. Today, that figure has risen to 55%.
Khan, the Afghan refugee in Pakistan, now has grown children who have children of their own. He said he blames the overwhelming poverty in his homeland on a corrupt leadership.

“To tell you the truth, lots of money came to Afghanistan and every influential person, even the mullahs, stole that money,” said Khan. ”The leaders are all traitors, they betrayed Afghans. The children of poor people got killed, while no leader lost his son.” Khan said he had a message for Guterres and for Grandi.

“We don’t ask for much,” he said, looking out over the sunbaked mud and straw homes in the camp where he’s lived for 40 years. Located on the edge of Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, the refugee camp is only about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the border with Afghanistan.

Among locals, the camp is known as Kabobyan Camp, named for the many kabob shops that sprung up around it, most of which have long since disappeared.

“First we ask for peace,” said Khan, surrounded by dozens of children dressed in tattered clothes. None were wearing socks despite the chilly February morning, their feet and hands caked in mud.

“When there is peace, we should be provided with land on which we can build our homes first. Then we need to have food, and then we need to be able to build our schools, our shops and our mosques,” he said.

Indrika Ratwatte, the UN human rights organization’s regional director for Asia, told the AP in an interview last week that Afghan refugees have little faith in their government or international organizations.

Khan’s request for land is reasonable, Ratwatte said, explaining how the UN wants to set up 20 zones throughout Afghanistan that would offer returning refugees land to start anew, as a kind of prototype.

“We know how resilient Afghans are,” Ratwatte said. “If you give them that small opportunity, they will make it work. They will make it work. So we have to really ‘walk the talk’ on the land allocation.”

Shah Wali, another elderly refugee, left his home in Surkhrud in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province almost 40 years ago. He tried returning, but found nothing left. What wasn’t destroyed by war had been taken by neighbors and thieves.

But even the faint chance of peace has him hopeful. “Give us peace and then we will go back,” he said. “Who doesn’t want to back to their homeland?“


French youth of Arab origin mistrust secularism, national symbols, finds poll

Updated 30 min 59 sec ago

French youth of Arab origin mistrust secularism, national symbols, finds poll

  • Arab News en Francais/YouGov survey of French citizens of Arab origin found a wide generational gap in attitudes to secular values
  • Older respondents identified more closely with French national symbols, but tended to feel stigmatized for their faith

LONDON: Young people of Arab origin in France are less likely to hold secular values and are more distrustful of national symbols than their elders, an Arab News en Francais survey conducted in partnership with British polling agency YouGov has found.

Attitudes to secularism appear to differ substantially among those aged between 18 and 24, which constituted 15 percent of the 958 people surveyed, compared with other age groups.

More than half (54 percent) of all those polled said they believe religion plays a negative role in politics, while a smaller 46 percent of 18-24-year-olds said this was the case.

Likewise, on the subject of laws restricting the wearing of religious clothing, 38 percent of all respondents said they favor such rules, while 29 percent of 18-24-year-olds approve.

Asked whether they would be prepared to defend the French model of secularism in their country of origin, 65 percent of respondents said they would compared with just 56 percent of 18-24-year-olds.

Even among the 25-34 age group, adherence to the values of secularism is noticeably stronger than among the younger cohort, with 55 percent saying religion plays a negative role in politics.

The trend generally continues with age. Among those over 45, about 50 percent said they are in favor of laws limiting the wearing of religious symbols.

Observers have asked whether such negative perceptions of secularism among young French citizens of Arab origin can be equated with growing radicalism.

Some scholars of Islam have established a link between countries which have adopted a more “incisive” secularism and the number of citizens who traveled to Syria to join Daesh.

William McCants and Christopher Meserole of the Brookings Institution believe the political culture of France and Belgium, where religious symbols are restricted, combined with massive unemployment and urbanization, contributed to radicalization.

IN NUMBERS

46% 18-24-year-olds say religion plays negative role in politics.

58% 18-24-year-olds would support home football side against France.

Other researchers say those who traveled to Syria came overwhelmingly from poor urban areas, where they faced discrimination in the job market, housing and police checks.

“Some young people feel they are viewed as sub-citizens, while media rhetoric gives credence to the idea that Muslims are ‘banding apart’,” said Elyamine Settoul, a lecturer at the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris.

“This otherness between ‘them’ and ‘us’ represents a breeding ground for radicalization. Radical groups will not only sell them full citizenship but also compensate for all their deficiencies, whether they are identity based, affective or narcissistic.”

It is perhaps surprising, then, that just 47 percent of the 18-24 cohort surveyed by Arab News en Francais and YouGov believe their religion is perceived negatively in France — significantly lower than the overall average of 59 percent among all age groups.

Few topics better reflect a community’s sense of national pride than an international football tournament. Dual identities often lead to the question: Should I support the national side from my place of origin or cheer for my adopted nation?

Once again, a generational split emerges. The survey found 58 percent of men aged 18-24 would support their country of origin against the French side compared with an average of 47 percent among all respondents.

If the French World Cup victory in 1998 is considered the peak of the country’s “black-blanc-beur” multiculturalism, then the 2001 friendly between France and Algeria must be considered its nadir, when Algerian fans invaded the pitch.

The Arab News en Francais/YouGov study found that support for the French national team tended to increase with age. About 58 percent of 35-44-year-olds and 50 percent of over-55s said they would support the French national side over their country of origin.

“Young people under 25 are still building their identity and tend to get closer to their country of origin at this age. They fully claim their belonging to the country of origin, but this remains like folklore, as they often do not know much about it,” Settoul said.

“Over time, the identity asserts itself: We integrate professionally, get married, buy property and no longer take the same positions.”