The collapse of the Taliban in northern and western Afghanistan in November was good news for aid workers seeking to get food and other necessities to war- and drought-affected Afghans. Expectations of greater security, of an end to US bombing in many areas and the opening of new supply routes from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran suggested the possibility of reaching many more needy Afghans than previously thought likely. The victories of the Northern Alliance in the north and west also reinvigorated relief groups’ aspiration that many of the more than 1.2 million internally displaced Afghans would be able to return home.

But all these hopes were quickly dashed by the lawlessness and banditry that followed the Taliban’s defeat. Some staff of United Nations (UN) and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were able to return to Afghanistan, but the looting of relief goods and attacks against aid workers and other foreigners (eight foreign journalists were killed in Afghanistan in November alone) discouraged the return of many others. Truck drivers, who it was thought would be willing to transport food to many more destinations, instead became even more fearful.

The result: In the first two weeks following the US-backed Northern Alliance’s capture of Mazar-e Sharif and most of northern Afghanistan, delivery of humanitarian assistance dropped by more than half. The director of Oxfam, an international relief group, said in the November 30 New York Times, “almost half the country is too insecure to operate in.” A spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee added that his group had scaled back—rather than expanded—its operations in Afghanistan since mid-November. The World Food Program (WFP) subsequently said that it got more than enough food into Afghanistan at the end of November to meet current needs and that it was able to deliver food to five of the six million Afghans in need. A million others could not be reached.

Going Home to What?

Most conflict- and drought-displaced people from rural areas (who make up a large majority of the displaced Afghan population) therefore did not return home. Most had nothing to return to and many were from areas that were already cut off by winter snows. Some were uncertain as to who was in control of their home areas, and feared the chaos that prevailed in much of the countryside after the collapse of Taliban rule.

The widespread presence of landmines and unexploded bombs in both rural and urban areas is another deterrent to the return of displaced people. In late November, two children were killed near Herat as they ran onto a mined field to collect food aid parcels dropped by US airplanes. Landmines kill or injure more than 3,000 Afghans every year. After 23 years of non-stop conflict, Afghanistan is said to be the most heavily mined country in the world.

Among the relatively few displaced Afghans who have returned home are some who had fled Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, Herat and other cities and towns in October and early November because of US air strikes. According to the UN, 40 to 70 percent of those cities’ residents fled their homes during October and November. Other displaced city dwellers, particularly ethnic Pashtuns, have not returned because they fear the Northern Alliance, whose human rights record is nearly as poor as that of the Taliban. “The Northern Alliance are no different than the Taliban,” said Marina Mateen, head of RAWA, an Afghan women’s organization. When mujahideen forces that included present Northern Alliance leaders and fighters seized control of Kabul and other cities in 1992, they raped, tortured and abducted women and girls. “That nightmare hasn’t been forgotten. People are scared,” Mateen added.

International human rights groups have called for investigations of Northern Alliance atrocities following their capture of Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz and during their suppression of a rebellion by Taliban prisoners in Mazar-e Sharif. A November 27 report by the UN News Service cited a UNHCR spokesperson’s warning that unless safety was ensured for civilians, most displaced Afghans would not be able to return home. “Even if they do, they may be forced to flee again, as they did so many times in the past,” the spokesperson stated.

Refugees Remain Wary

The governments of Pakistan and Iran, which between them host more than 3.6 million Afghan refugees, undoubtedly hoped that large numbers of Afghan refugees would repatriate in the wake of the opposition’s successes in Afghanistan. But while thousands of refugees did repatriate voluntarily from both countries in November, particularly to Afghanistan’s main cities, a large majority of Afghan refugees are far too savvy to rush home before they are assured that their safety and basic needs are met. Many had previously repatriated to Afghanistan and returned to Pakistan or Iran because of ongoing or renewed conflict, human rights abuses, a dismal economy, drought and a host of other factors that made it impossible to survive inside Afghanistan.

In late 1992 and 1993, following the fall of the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime in Afghanistan, more than 2 million Afghan refugees repatriated from Pakistan and Iran. UN agencies and NGOs rushed to set up programs to assist the refugees who were returning and the many others they expected would follow. But the repatriation ground to a halt. The various mujahideen factions that had banded together to fight the Soviets soon turned on each other in a frenzied clash for power. Not only did armed conflict resume, widespread lawlessness also prevailed.

Furthermore, the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union shortly afterwards and the subsequent end of the Cold War contributed to the West losing interest in Afghanistan and the Afghan refugee population. Donor governments largely ignored UN appeals for funds for Afghan repatriation programs. Aid to Afghan refugees who remained in Pakistan was severely curtailed (the international community never provided much assistance to Afghan refugees in Iran because of Tehran’s anti-West stance).

These experiences taught Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran to wait and see before rushing home. Refugees will carefully evaluate conditions inside Afghanistan and determine whether it is safe to return and if there will be enough assistance available to them once they return. However, they will have to weigh their assessments against the pressure that Pakistan and Iran are likely to put—indeed are already putting—on them to go home. Iran routinely deports Afghan refugees to encourage others to leave. In the past year, Pakistani authorities have also been harassing and deporting Afghan refugees. Pakistan supported the Taliban and, until September 11, insisted that refugees could return safely to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Once the Taliban are fully removed from power, Pakistan will no doubt turn around and say that with the Taliban gone and the international community promising to help rebuild Afghanistan, refugees should immediately return.


What do displaced Afghans see as they look at Afghanistan today? The US and the UN are promising a much greater commitment to reconstructing post-conflict Afghanistan than in the early 1990s—if the Afghan factions can agree to a multi-ethnic government and guarantee security, a very big if. Top UN leaders, including Secretary General Kofi Annan, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and the head of the WFP met with George W. Bush on November 28 to discuss reconstruction assistance to post-war Afghanistan, a sign that international commitment may indeed be more genuine this time around.

At the same time, representatives of more than 200 organizations, including many Afghan NGOs, met in Islamabad to map out priorities for Afghan reconstruction. A positive feature of the Islamabad meeting was the emphasis placed on the need for Afghans to be not only be fully involved in the process, but to guide it. One UN official, Sayed Aqa Sahibzada said, “If the Afghan perspective is not involved, then [the reconstruction program] may not reach anywhere. At the end of the day, it is the Afghans [who know] what part of the country needs what kind of assistance first.”

While these developments may offer refugees hope of return and reintegration, other factors make them wary of international promises. Already, some of the same dynamics that impeded the repatriation of most Afghan refugees in the early 1990s are coming into play. The Northern Alliance appears unwilling to share power or to give up control of areas it has captured. Assorted Pashtun leaders are vying for power on the ground and for control of Pashtun representation in whatever government is formed. According to the November 29 Washington Post, “Local warlords and tribal elders have already carved up the country into fiefdoms.”

Afghanistan is also far more devastated than it was in 1992. Nine additional years of conflict, two years of the worst drought most Afghans have known and massive US bombing have left the country in ruins. Many Afghan refugees are undoubtedly eager to return home and rebuild their lives. The most able and resourceful among them will head back as soon as they can. But most will wait until political and economic conditions in Afghanistan promise them a reasonably stable livelihood. It is imperative that the international community help bring about those conditions, and also press the Iranian and Pakistani governments to permit Afghan refugees to remain in their countries until those conditions exist.

How to cite this article:

Hiram Ruiz "Solutions Not Imminent for Afghan Displaced and Refugees," Middle East Report Online, December 04, 2001.

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