As Afghanistan's interim government struggles to promote stability, Afghan refugees in Tajikistan are beginning to return to their homeland. Many Afghans are driven in part by the fact that peace prospects in Afghanistan seem at their highest point in over two decades. Many refugees' willingness to return also is connected with the hardships that they have endured in Tajikistan, the poorest state in the former Soviet Union.
A EurasiaNet correspondent spent time with Hakim Abduldod, who was among the first refugees to prepare to repatriate to Afghanistan. Abduldod's experience typifies the difficulties faced by Afghans during their stay in Tajikistan.
Tajikistan, which is itself struggling to overcome the effects of a 1992-97 civil war, has lacked resources to properly accommodate Afghan refugees, many of whom are ethnic Tajiks originally from northern regions of Afghanistan. Afghans have sought refuge in Tajikistan for more than a decade, after Mujaheddin forces ousted the Communist regime in Kabul in 1992. During the US-led anti-terrorism campaign, which resulted in the Taliban's ouster, the Tajik government sealed its border to prevent a refugee surge. Officials justified their action by saying that Tajikistan lacked the infrastructure to cope with such an influx.
Abduldod's story certainly indicates that conditions in Tajikistan were hard for Afghans. He and his family arrived in Dushanbe in 1998, after spending time in a refugee camp in southern Tajikistan. He considers himself fortunate to have been able to settle in the capital because, despite all the hardships, it is easier to find work there than in other parts of the country. Abduldod, like many refugees, earned money as a trader. According to some estimates, there are between 4,000 and 10,000 Afghans in Dushanbe.
Many Afghan refugees, both ethnic Tajiks and Pashtuns, say it is virtually impossible for them to earn a living in the towns of southern Tajikistan, a region ravaged by the country's civil war. Many residents in southern Tajikistan are suspicious of refugees, in part because they are viewed as competitors for scarce economic resources.
This suspicion is in part responsible for the action taken by Tajik authorities and Russian border guards to reduce the influx of Afghans. Thousands of potential refugees have been blocked from entering Tajikistan and forced to live on islands in the middle of the Panj River.
According to foreign media reports, an estimated 4,000 refugees remained on the Panj islands in early January, though their plight had been eased by the arrival of United Nations food shipments. As many as 14,000 people have sought shelter on the islands since Taliban forces drove them from their homes in the fall of 2000. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Refugees like Abduldod in Dushanbe understood their status. Refugees generally kept and continue to keep out of the public eye. Many fear informal reprisals and oppression from police and other bureaucrats. Abduldod, for example, claimed that authorities forced him to shut down his open-air trading post in May 2001.
Authorities in the capital announced in July that all Afghans had to leave the capital. Although officials did not implement the order, it nevertheless had a chilling effect on the Afghan refugee community.
The United States, which has promised to support Afghanistan's reconstruction, has been less clear on how it plans to help Tajikistan cope with Afghan refugees, or staff its border, without help from Russian guards. Jim Kolbe, a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Arizona, told Asia Plus on January 14 that the US Congress hopes to support Tajikistan by developing "firm economic relations." The agency quoted Kolbe as saying: "Of course, Tajikistan needs more aid and we are seeking opportunities to provide effective aid."
Abduldod seems ready to leave Tajikistan's problems behind. His family, which received money in exile from a relative connected to Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, was one of the first to exit Dushanbe via helicopter. He expected to return, with his mother and other relatives, after the holy month of Ramadan ended in December.
Central Asian peoples often celebrate festive occasions with "plov," a lamb-and-rice dish. Abduldod had other plans as he prepared to leave Tajikistan. "It will be the happiest moment in my life," he said. "I dream, as soon as possible, that I will return to my native city, where I was born and grew up, and eat a slice of home bread, which will be for me more tasty than any plov from abroad."
Davron Vali is a freelance journalist based in Central Asia.