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Still without a country
Afghans in Tehran and Cairo

By Negar Azimi
February 27, 2002
The Iranian

Every day for the past seven years, Fazluddin wakes at dawn to the crow of the rooster perched atop his precarious mud roof. The first thing Fazluddin does is switch on his small short-wave radio -- a remnant from his former life in Afghanistan -- to listen to the news. Rituals never fail to comfort in a life riddled with uncertainties.

By 6am, as he prepares to catch a ride to the cotton fields, the Voice of America's Farsi Service barely makes itself audible, wholly out of context on this stretch of barren Iranian plain. In this manner, he can, on occasion, hear the banned Iranian chanteuse Googoosh wail, and perhaps more importantly, learn of news direct from America's capital, which is in stark contrast to the dispatches and conservative commentary emanating from the state-owned stations.

So when the Voice of America recounted the events of 11 September, Fazluddin reacted much like any reasonable person would: with horror. That day it seemed that no one was immune. And when, weeks later, US B-52 bombers pounded suspected Al-Qa'eda enclaves in and about Gardez, the village of his youth, he reacted much like anybody would whose home and heritage was in the process of being systematically bombarded, and ultimately, annihilated.

But today, the Voice of America carries a different set of messages to the world. While discussion of bombing, which promised to exterminate the life of the man deemed responsible for 11 September, has significantly decreased, a new life has been injected into the radio station's outpourings. The same words are used: victory, justice, and freedom -- only, no longer in the hypothetical.

Judging from the abundance of ebullient superlatives, there is indeed the prospect of a bright future for the millions of Afghans both in exile, like Fazluddin, and those many more internally displaced within an Afghanistan that is no stranger to misery. Nevertheless, rather than rejoice and pack up his belongings in preparation for a heartfelt and appropriately story-book return from exile, Fazluddin goes on with his work, continuing his precarious existence as a refugee in Iran's Shahid Nasseri camp.

Afghans in the Nasseri camp, near the agricultural centre of Saveh located 120 kilometres south of Tehran, have little to look forward to. Theirs is often a life of regularised limbo as they face all too frequent food shortages and feel the brunt of the drought devastating the entire region, Afghanistan included.

Nevertheless, these are not the same kind of refugees as those dramatically depicted on the covers of virtually every major news magazine since 11 September -- people rendered homeless by the US-led campaign. The refugees at the Nasseri camp had been forced to flee their homes long before Bin Laden became a household name.

Iran, a country that has known its own share of turbulence, hosted an estimated 1.4 million Afghans even before this fall's dramatic influx. The vast majority of those Afghans had sought refuge in Iran during the Soviet era and the subsequent period leading up to the toppling of the Najibullah regime in 1992. In effect, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have been living in Iran for more than a decade, and a substantive chunk have been here for almost two.

At Nasseri, the children of Pashtuns speak their parents' tongue only with great difficulty, if at all. Instead, they speak the Farsi of Iran, for this is the country in which most of them were born, and the language of instruction at the camp's school, which is staffed by Iranian teachers. In effect, they have known nothing more than life in the camp and its immediate environs, and by extension, Iran. For them, Afghanistan is a land of mystery, little more than a mythical locale of gorgeous snow-capped peaks and a land that their parents once called home.

Ali, one of a few of the Hazara ethnic minority within the camp, is 10 years old. He speaks perfect Farsi, yet hides in shyness behind his father at the first hint of a compliment. When asked if he knows of recent events in Afghanistan, he nods and looks to his father. Ali's father, Hamid, explains that every Afghan in the camp remains well appraised of the events in Afghanistan, yet it hardly matters: "My livelihood, my father's farms, the Russians took everything. It doesn't matter now. We have had to move on and build a life for our children in Iran. My wife, two brothers and I have been here for 15 years." Ali smiles from behind his father's leg and adds, "This is our home now."

Hamid's family, like many others, has been integrated into the fabric of Iranian life. Iran, in contrast with most countries hosting large refugee communities, has been historically hospitable to the enormous Afghan population housed within its borders. According to the Ministry of Interior's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA), upwards of 90 per cent of the refugee population within Iran lives outside of the camp context, thus intermingling with Iranians on a daily basis rather than being wholly sequestered.

Even at camps such as Nasseri, refugees have significant involvement in the local economy, often finding work in the surrounding agricultural fields or in the provincial capital of Saveh. It is not uncommon to see Afghans from the camp making the commute to town at dawn, and returning late at night en masse piled atop transport vehicles.

Countless Afghan men have married Iranian women, further tying the Afghans to the social fabric of modern Iran. Afghans are such a part of daily life in Iran today that they are routinely featured in cinema, from the films of acclaimed director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to the current hit Baran, the story of a young Afghan girl in Iran who pretends to be a boy to secure a job working in a Tehran high-rise. Today, for those refugees who have known Iran as their home, return is not such a simple task.

Nevertheless, in recent years due to increasingly difficult economic conditions within Iran, the country has grown less accommodating to refugees in general. Public opinion is slowly turning against Afghans, who often work harder and for less pay than Iranians, while forcible repatriations seem to have increasingly become the norm.

One well-placed source within Iran reports that the government of Iran's Joint Programme for the Repatriation of Afghan refugees, in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has been less than humane; in the month of November 2000 alone, a total of 3,510 Afghans were deported via the border at Islam Qala.

Most of them hailed from northern and central provinces of Afghanistan and had managed to make the perilous journey into Iran with the aid of human traffickers. According to Sardhanand Panchoe, a UNHCR protection officer stationed in Zahedan, Iran, "Iranian authorities continue to deport Afghans caught on road checkpoints today."

Geneva-based UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler adds that while mass deportations do continue, they take place mainly at night, making it difficult for the international community to monitor and, ultimately, intervene.

Khan, an ethnic Hazara from Kunduz, explains that his troubles began when his father and uncle, members of the Soviet-era People's Democratic Party (PDP), were assassinated by forces within the mujahideen government. Shortly thereafter, he was imprisoned and severely tortured for his own involvement with the Shi'aa Unity Party (SUP).

He managed to escape his detention and hide amidst a convoy transporting grain, being dropped off just inside the Iranian border in 1993. From there, he made the journey on foot to Zahedan -- where he lost his right arm in a land mine explosion, having thought that the ubiquitous scrap metal he came upon could be useful to him later for trading purposes.

Today, Khan tends to gardens in the posh, tree-lined northern Tehran neighborhood of Zafaranieh, often for upwards of 14 hours a day, making just enough to feed his family. Even though he, too, has felt the sting of increasing anti-Afghan sentiment in the capital, citing one recent incident during which he was attacked by three grown Iranian men throwing stones, he cannot consider a return to Afghanistan.

"I do not feel like an Afghan anymore," he siad. "It is as if my memory of this place has been wiped from my mind. Perhaps I am at an in-between point today. My history is in Afghanistan, but my life is in Iran. I cannot simply leave everything I have worked for here and return because the Americans say it is safe; no, I intend to stay here. I will die in Iran."

And so as a number of Afghans in and around the border zones between Iran and Afghanistan embark upon the harrowing journey home -- reportedly 45,000 in the past two months -- the vast majority who have lived in Iran for years are staying put. The Voice of America may ring triumphal, but it will take far more than mere sound bites to reunite the refugees with a country that many feel they no longer know.


Although there has been no official count, most estimates place the number of Afghans in Cairo at 250 -- almost entirely composed of men. The community is small but diverse, composed of a combination of Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks. More than half of Cairo's Afghans, roughly 150, are enrolled as students at Al-Azhar University.

The large Afghan student body at Al-Azhar is no accident of history. For a people faced with years of war, drought, famine and, ultimately, the destructive rule of the Taliban, a scholarship to study in Egypt at Al-Azhar proved an ideal means of evading Afghanistan's sphere of routine instability. More often than not, an intended four years in Egypt became five, then six and so on. Many Afghans in Cairo could not conceive of going back as they received word of the increasingly disastrous state of affairs in their country.

Abdullah, for example, has lived in Cairo since 1990. In 1981, he suffered severe burns in a Soviet bombardment on his village of Bebakhshan, not far from the Chinese border. Though he is not sure, he thinks that he must have been at least seven or eight years old at the time. From Afghanistan, he was taken to Pakistan for treatment as an unaccompanied minor by an international medical rescue mission. Abdullah would never again set foot in his native land.

He remained in Pakistan for the next nine years, getting an education wherever he could find it -- Peshawar, Islamabad, Quetta. On many occasions, Abdullah came face to face with the realities of the ubiquitous madrassas (religious schools) that would ultimately serve as breeding grounds for what in the future would be known as the Taliban and rank-and-file members of Al-Qa'eda.

Abdullah's life took a turn for the better in 1990, when he received notice that he had been accepted at Al-Azhar to study on a scholarship. One year into his studies, he applied for refugee status at the UNHCR -- like most Afghans in Cairo, he had virtually become a refugee by default because of the havoc being wreaked on his native land by the Taliban. His request was rejected last July, however.

Although he has filed an appeal, Abdullah says he has little faith in the asylum system. Like many Afghans, he feels that resettlement countries such as America will not accept him. Ultimately, he expects another rejection notice from the UNHCR.

Abdullah's concerns are very much confirmed by the facts. The UNHCR in Cairo has been encouraging Afghans to repatriate since the fall of the Taliban. Several cases that had been recommended for resettlement in the US have been since revoked and Afghans are now being sent back to the UNHCR for further interviews.

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's acting regional representative, confirmed to Al-Ahram Weekly that the rumours that abound in Cairo's Afghan community are true. "It is correct that we are encouraging Afghans to return to their country and reassessing the durable solution of resettlement," he said. "Since the interim government has come into power, we feel that there is no reason why Afghans should not return."

Cochetel did, however, concede that there are special exceptions to such a categorical emphasis on return. For example, at least two Afghan cases destined for resettlement in coming months will remain unaffected.

For Abdullah, though, time is ticking away a little too fast. His scholarship finishes in May and -- despite the apparent success of the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan and the optimistic stance of the UNHCR and others -- he says that returning to his country would be "khod koshee," an expression in his native tongue Dari that roughly translates as "suicide."

"When a country has been at war for 25 years and remains in a state of total disaster, you cannot expect people to return and rebuild their lives overnight," said Abdullah. "This is what the international community has convinced itself will and must happen to Afghanistan, but in reality it will take generations to restore stability and some semblance of normality."

As a member of Afghanistan's Tajik minority, Abdullah has little faith that he will be safe back home. The Tajiks are an often-marginalised and persecuted social group. "Karzai (the interim president) is a Pashtun," laments Abdullah. "People seem to forget that he was a member of the Taliban himself for years. Nothing will change in Afghanistan. The interim government is virtually powerless and is merely for show. In the end, the power lies in the hands of the Pashtuns and America. The US is running the entire show."

Others, too, share Abdullah's sentiments. Many go as far as assailing the United States for acting in its own interests. The legacy of superpowers vying for access to Afghanistan -- something which dates back to British incursions during the colonial era -- has left a bitter taste in the mouths of most Afghans and an indelible mark on the country's perceptions of the rest of the world.

Mohamed, also a student at Al-Azhar but a Pashtun-speaker, puts it thus: "The Americans and the rest of the world did nothing for years. They knew very well about what was happening to our people, but they did not act until the terror struck them at their own hearts. And now they have a strategic hold on Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan who have suffered will soon be forgotten."

Others express concern that, while America's intentions may be worthy, the US will ultimately desert Afghanistan before a sustainable change can take hold. Saeed, also a student at Al-Azhar, is grateful for the international community's role in bringing about the demise of the Taliban, but adds that he will not even consider return until he knows that the stability will last. "The second the international community pulls out, Afghanistan will descend back into war and factionalism. I cannot risk return until I know that there will be a functioning, democratic government and an end to ethnic strife and power struggles. It is too early to see what will become of our country."

Saeed's room mate Omar is from Wardak, near Kabul. He, too, got to Egypt via scholarship, to Cairo University in 1995. Now, without the right to work and surviving only on the modest sums which he sporadically receives from an uncle in Holland, he refuses to return to Afghanistan until he is assured that those responsible for brutally killing his father before his eyes are dead. Omar's father was a prominent governor in the Najibullah government, who was branded as a kharkee, or communist, by mujahidin forces in 1991.

Like others whose problems preceded the rise of the Taliban, Omar does not understand why the destruction of the Taliban power structure suddenly makes his potential return a safe one. Omar added that the civilian casualties of the US-led campaign in Afghanistan, currently estimated to be at least 4,000, cannot be ignored. "I refuse to thank the US for killing more innocents. What distinguishes them from the Taliban, who did the same?"

Nevertheless, Omar admits that he recently went to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) office in Zamalek to sign up for a pilot programme initiated in early December that would help willing, educated Afghans return to their country to take part in the reconstruction process.

He was told that his application would be evaluated for potential matches with one of 50 eligible positions available worldwide to serve as members of Afghanistan's soon-to-emerge civil service. According to Saika Niemi, programme assistant for the "Return of Qualified Afghans" (RQA) programme in Cairo, 13 Afghans have come to IOM since RQA's inception to apply for available positions. The great majority, however, have opted to wait before signing up.

Abdul is one of those unwilling to return. He left his native Kabul in 1996, just weeks before the Taliban captured the city and consolidated their hold of the country. Abdul's two brothers had joined the fledgling movement two years before, but his father -- a law professor at a Kabul university known for his opposition to the regime's interpretation of the Shari'a law -- was taken away by 15 Taliban members who broke into the family home late one evening.

Abdul fled from Kabul and Afghanistan that very night, and has been in Egypt ever since -- wholly cut off from any contact with any family. Although he has finished his studies at Al- Azhar, he cannot work; like countless foreign nationals in Egypt, he has no right to do so. Instead, he stays indoors for much of the day for fear of being rounded up by the authorities. Abdul says he does not see the use of applying for refugee status. Instead, he spends his time next to his radio -- listening for the latest dispatches from Afghanistan and searching for a glimmer of hope.

When asked whether he would return to his country today if he had the opportunity and the means, he had only this to say: "What country? I have no one in Afghanistan. I do not know that country anymore. And Egypt? You cannot call this a life." He takes a minute to reflect, and finally adds, "Today, I am still without a country."

This article was originally published in Al-Ahram, 7-13 February, 2002.

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