‘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?“


Paris bans daytime jogging as virus deaths hit new high

Updated 37 min 29 sec ago

Paris bans daytime jogging as virus deaths hit new high

  • Starting Wednesday, Paris will enforce a ban on individual outdoor sports between the hours of 10:00 am and 07:00 pm
  • Officials worry that confinement violations could further burden hospitals already overflowing with COVID-19 patients

PARIS:  Paris officials announced Tuesday that they would ban daytime jogging to keep people from bending anti-coronavirus lockdown rules, after France recorded its biggest daily jump in the death toll from the outbreak.
Under nationwide stay-at-home orders that came into force on March 17, people can leave their homes only for essential purposes, which until now included a solo walk or run within a one-kilometer (0.6-mile) radius of home.
But amid a spell of sunny spring weather, large groups of Parisians were seen running, walking and congregating over the weekend, even as police stepped up patrols and issued fines for lockdown violations.
Starting Wednesday, Paris will enforce a ban on individual outdoor sports between the hours of 10:00 am and 07:00 pm.
Officials worry that confinement violations could further burden hospitals already overflowing with COVID-19 patients, and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner on Monday urged municipal officials to toughen restrictions if necessary.
“Every excursion avoided aids the fight against the epidemic,” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and police chief Didier Lallement said in a statement.
Also Tuesday, the Atlantic coastal resort city of Biarritz limited the period people can sit on benches or in other public areas to two minutes maximum, saying confinement meant that “dawdling is prohibited.”
Paris, Biarritz and other cities have already closed public parks and gardens as part of the nationwide lockdown that requires people to carry a document justifying any excursion from the home.
Those caught without the document risk a fine starting at €135 ($147).
In the north of France, the mayor of Marcq-en-Baroeul has made spitting in public, coughing or sneezing without covering one’s face, and throwing used masks and gloves in the street punishable by a fine of 68 euros.
The tougher rules came after Health Minister Olivier Veran announced Monday a record daily coronavirus death toll of 833 people in 24 hours.
“It is not over,” the minister said, urging people to “stay at home and continue this confinement effort.”
Like many other nations, France debated Tuesday the merits of encouraging, or compelling, people to wear face masks to prevent asymptomatic virus-carriers from passing it on to others.
Veran said Tuesday that it remained an “open question” that required further scientific investigation.
France’s Academy of Medicine, which advises the government on epidemics, has advocated mask-wearing as an aid in curbing the outbreak, but international bodies, including the World Health Organization (WHO) disagree.
But Hidalgo said in a radio interview Tuesday that she would not oblige face mask use for now, though she did encourage people to cover their faces in public.
France’s finance ministry, meanwhile, said dozens of companies have produced 3.9 million fabric masks for non-medical professional use in the past week, and will produce 6.6 million more in the days to come.
The country’s Order of Pharmacists and two labor unions urged the government, meanwhile, to allow pharmacies to sell “alternative” non-medical grade masks to members of the public as an added protection.
The WHO said Monday that asking the general public to wear face masks could be justified in areas where hand-washing and physical distancing were difficult, but warned that masks alone could not stop the pandemic.