'Haven't we had enough?'
For the first time in 23 years, Afghanistan is not at war. Negar Azimi discusses the future of the country with Afghan refugees in Cairo
With the momentous fall of the Taliban in December of 2001, the prospect of return presented itself for the first time in years. Suddenly, Afghans in the Diaspora were confronted with questions of nationhood, allegiance and a future in a country that they could call their own.
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At the end of 2001, some 4.5 million Afghans were living as refugees in other countries, while an estimated 250-300 reside in Cairo
The Afghan population in Cairo was no exception. Forty-five men enlisted in a voluntary repatriation screening programme called the Return of Qualified Afghans (RQA) sponsored by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The programme, which ran from December 2001 through June 2002, selected four highly-skilled persons presumably equipped to aid reconstruction efforts. One of those who was selected for repatriation later returned to Egypt. Today, he expresses his disappointment, calling the Afghanistan that he encountered "a living nightmare".
Others opted to repatriate without international assistance. Of the estimated 250-300 Afghans in Cairo, roughly two dozen have returned to Afghanistan in one year's time -- precious few considering the abundance of rosy superlatives used to describe the country's future.
Many of the Afghans who have remained in Egypt are reluctant to return, expressing concerns about security and dismal economic prospects. Several mention friends who have returned and are now sending messages urging them not to come because jobs are scarce and life is hard. No one will tell you that making a life in Afghanistan today is easy.
Most Afghans living in Cairo are students at Al-Azhar University, while a smaller number is at Cairo University. Scholarships to study at one of the leading institutions in the Arab world are often readily accepted, particularly by those Afghans living in overcrowded refugee camps in Pakistan, where as many as 50 or 60 families may live together. Former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was once a student at Al-Azhar.
Over the past two decades, a tradition of receiving Afghan students in Egypt has persisted as educational opportunities in Afghanistan have diminished. When they completed their studies or when their student visas expired, many Afghans moved to Pakistan or Iran. Afghanistan rarely presented itself as a viable option.
Hassan, a former student at Al-Azhar who now works in Cairo for Radio Free Europe's Pashtun service, Radio Azadeh, says about the economic situation in Afghanistan, "All of the good jobs require French, English and computer skills. The Afghans from Pakistan have taken them, so what is left for us?"
Hassan and others are concerned about the potential effects of epidemic joblessness, which some say could lead to a reascendance of the Taliban or Al- Qa'eda splinter groups. They say this kind of economic desperation breeds insecurity and vulnerability.
Complete demobilisation and demilitarisation are ambitious goals, particularly as the United States continues to arm local and regional military commanders in a game of playing favourites.
While the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), based in Kabul and its immediate environs, has kept the capital under some measure of control, the fact that the mission's mandate is limited geographically is a concern among Afghans within the country and in the Diaspora. Kabul may be safe but the rest of Afghanistan may not be.
Indeed, there is a palpable fear that as soon as the ISAF vanishes, so will the country's fragile security. President Hamid Karzai repeatedly has pleaded for support in expanding the international peace-keeping force.
"With a war in Iraq, the international forces may disappear, and Afghanistan's needs will be completely forgotten," says Saeed, a law student at Al-Azhar. Others agreed, saying that CNN and even Al-Jazeera have ceased to air significant coverage of Afghanistan.
Hassan's family returned to Afghanistan this past summer after having lived in Pakistan for the better part of a decade.
"They wrote to me, 'if you can, do not come. We miss you, but if you leave us one morning, we cannot be sure that you will make it back home.' And that is why I hesitate," Hassan says.
To some refugees, the very notion of 'return' is irrelevant. For those who spent most of their lives in Iran or Pakistan, Afghanistan may be nothing more than their place of birth. For countless Afghans who were born in neighbouring countries, it is a wholly imagined land.
Abdul is among these refugees. He was born and lived in Peshawar for 20 years before receiving a scholarship to study journalism at Al-Azhar University, where he has been studying for the past six months. In December of 2001, he travelled to Afghanistan as a translator for the US-based television channel MSNBC. His command of English made him an attractive asset to the scores of foreign journalists who had descended upon the country in the final days of the ill-fated regime. Fifteen days spent in Tora Bora served as a rude introduction to his country. Nevertheless, he confides, he did not dare tell his family that the rough and tough, strife- ridden region would be his ultimate destination.
"That was the first time that I had been in my own country, and it was as foreign to me as most countries would be. I was practically a refugee in my own country."
And what of the pomp surrounding an aggressive reconstruction effort and the new Afghanistan it will bring? Abdul recounts his immediate impressions during his dramatic introduction to the country. "People were disappointed by the Americans and what they brought. They did not want the soldiers in their villages. Many were killed in attacks by the Northern Alliance and the US did not help any of them."
Abdul says, "No one was telling the truth. Everyone was there for their own personal benefit. We were seeing the dead bodies but the deaths went unreported by the media. I saw 35 people killed in one day by American planes in Tora Bora, but this was never reported."
Beyond international interests, the immediate social fabric of Afghanistan is a concern for many considering return. Many believe that favouritism is prevalent in the country and that in order to get a decent job, or simply to stay safe, one must rely on personal connections with regional governors, quasi-official warlords, provincial bosses and the like.
"A taxi driver will ask you what you thought of Ahmed Shah Massoud, and five minutes later you will find yourself in jail because he is one of his supporters," says Ismail, a fifth-year student at Al-Azhar.
Saeed says, "If I go back, I will have to label myself a Taliban supporter, a Rabbani supporter, or a supporter of Zahir Shah. I will never be Saeed only."
Many Afghans express concerns about factionalism and ethnic rivalries that persist in the country. The tendency to identify Afghans according to ethnic and linguistic group membership became most prevalent during the Mujahedeen era. For most Afghans, such a tendency is, at best, ill informed. Things are never quite that simple, they say.
"We are first Afghans above all else," says Hassan.
Divisive labelling has added relevance for Pashtuns. Human Rights Watch, among other groups, has documented countless incidents of retribution against Pashtun civilians because of their associations, whether genuine or imagined, with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Some of that brutality was in fact incited and carried out by members of international forces.
Hakim, who has a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother, says, "Americans felt that everyone who spoke Pashtun was Taliban, so they targeted them during the war. Even today, Pashtuns are especially in danger because they are targeted by every other group."
While faith in President Karzai appears high among Afghans in Cairo, faith in his coalition government is devastatingly low. Many share a sentiment that his hands are tied and that he is forced to bow to the interests of both the international community that propped him up and the factional interests within his Northern Alliance-dominated administration.
"He is a puppet," says Hakim. Indeed, concern that the regional Panshjir faction rules Afghanistan appears ubiquitous.
For most Afghans, staying in Egypt is not an option. Aside from obtaining a student visa, there is virtually no opportunity to remain in the country legally. Many in the Afghan community have lost faith in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as a means of securing resettlement to a third country. While the agency continues to accept Afghans for interviews, members of the community are convinced that they stand no chance of being considered given their country's purportedly auspicious future.
Their concerns are largely confirmed by UNHCR policy. According to Peter Kessler, senior public information officer at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, the international agency is encouraging Afghans to voluntarily repatriate from Egypt and the rest of the world. Over two million Afghans have returned since December of 2001 while close to four million remain in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan.
Daood is soft-spoken and looks more like 16 than 26. This will be his fourth year in Egypt. Prior to his arrival, he spent eight months in Peshawar after having escaped from a high-security prison in Herat. His father, a minister in the Najibullah government, was targeted by the Taliban, and as a result, the two of them spent one and a half years in captivity before Daood managed to escape while performing service on the front-lines. His father was not as fortunate, as he did not live beyond the sixth month of detention.
Upon arriving in Cairo, Daood approached the UNHCR and was eventually granted refugee status. He was not recommended for resettlement, however, and now finds himself in limbo in a country that feels like anything but home.
When asked if he would consider returning to Afghanistan, he vehemently shakes his head. But life here is also not an option.
"I am not sure how they think I could make my life here," he says, referring to UNHCR and the refugee agency's blue card that allows him to stay in Egypt with legal status.
Majid, another student at Al-Azhar, recounts his experience with the UNHCR. "I went in 1999 and told them that I could not possibly return because I did not feel safe. Some people would have told the interviewer that they killed members of the Taliban and could not go back because of that. That was a definite way to get refugee status. Anyway, I told the truth and look where it got me."
Daood says he never received a result on his case and never inquired about his status with UNHCR.
"I lost all faith. And I did not even want to go to Europe or America, I just needed the help to survive here because I could not go back to my country."
Daood says about the asylum process, "They were accepting many Afghans as refugees because the situation in our country was terrible. But what they must realise is that nothing has changed. In some ways, things are worse."
Majid says, "With the fall of the Taliban, we had high hopes. But we are in exactly the same place."
Says Hassan, "We are just waiting. Our time will run out soon enough."
Afghans in Cairo share a feeling that Egypt is not home. A lack of information and misinformation surrounding their country is widespread. Most feel culturally distinct from Egyptians. And perhaps like the Iranians who were readily associated with Ayatollah Khomeini in the years following the 1979 revolution, Afghans in Cairo say they carry myriad burdens born of association.
Hassan says, "I am tired of being asked where Bin Laden is hiding and why we let him in! I tell most Egyptians that I am from Pakistan or India. I get left alone that way."
Saeed adds, "The only difference is that after the Taliban, Egyptians are asking us why we permitted the Americans on our land."
From the case of Afghanistan we learn that nothing is clear-cut and that the kind of change needed to mend a broken country will not materialise over night, despite expectations.
Says Daood, "I suppose we cannot expect that after more than 20 years one year of peace could make a difference. But we are tired. I want to know when we will be able to rest. Haven't we had enough?"