Ahead of an international conference Wednesday in Geneva on Afghan refugees, UNHCR talked to a man who returned to Afghanistan last year after 28 years as a refugee in Pakistan. Fida Mohammad, 48, lives with his wife and their eight children in the Paghman district of Kabul. Mohammad had only recently graduated from high school when his family fled Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion. Waheedullah Aleko, UNHCR’s senior protection assistant in Kabul, recently spoke to Fida at his home. Extracts from the interview:
What made you decide to return to Afghanistan?
Afghanistan is my country and as an Afghan I had to return back to my homeland. I cannot stay forever in a foreign country as a refugee. The situation in Afghanistan now is not the same as it was 28 years ago when we fled to Pakistan. Now the situation in my country has improved. When I saw that many other families, including my relatives, were returning, I also made the decision to return to Afghanistan.
When you returned to your village, were living conditions as you expected they would be?
My brother had returned to Afghanistan before me and I was in constant contact with him. He told me about the situation here in Afghanistan. Naturally it is difficult for someone who has lived for 28 years away from his village to come back and start a new life. I did face problems at first when I returned as I had no job and little money. But generally things had improved in the village and there was no more fighting here.
How were those first weeks and months back in Afghanistan?
It was difficult for me at first when I returned because I had no house and no job. My brother shared his house with me and we stayed with his family. After a month, I went to UNHCR and received shelter support so that I could begin building my own house. The cost of living was higher here in Afghanistan compared to Pakistan and I did not have enough money, so I was under pressure to quickly find work to support myself and my family. I asked my brother and other relatives to help me with the building as it was difficult for me to carry on the construction and also work to support my family. Soon after we returned, I enrolled my children in school. I was back in my own country. I was happy, and slowly I started to settle in and my conditions improved.
Please describe your life as a refugee in Pakistan
In Pakistan I lived in the town of Hangu in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province. House rents and the cost of living were not that high there. I rented a house for 3,000 rupees (US$33) per month. I was able to repair watches, which helped me support my family. I was registered in Pakistan and had a Proof of Registration card [government-issued identity card for Afghan refugees]. My children went to school in Pakistan because I wanted them to be educated. Even if I face financial difficulties, I want my children to be educated so that they have a brighter future.
In your opinion, what is preventing other refugees from returning to Afghanistan?
Many refugees in Pakistan do not return because they do not have a house or land in Afghanistan, just as I had no house. Maybe they are needy and their houses were destroyed and they do not have the means to reconstruct. If they could have a house here, and be able to find a job, then I believe nobody would stay in Pakistan. There are no jobs here in Afghanistan, but I think the real problem is that people do not have houses. If one has a house, whether he has a low or medium income, he can still survive.
What message would you send to the international conference in Geneva?
People should be helped to become self-sufficient so that they are not compelled to go back to other countries. I request the people at this conference to please help Afghan refugees who have returned from Pakistan and Iran so that they are not compelled to go back. They should be helped so that their economic conditions improve, to have jobs and houses. Factories and plants should be built in Afghanistan to help people find work. When people have work in Afghanistan, and they have houses to live in, they will never go back to Iran or Pakistan to live as refugees.