Pakistan’s Expulsion of Afghan Refugees Echoes a 40-Year History

Born in a camp in exile, the author recalls her homecoming to Kabul and journey to the West

Pakistan’s Expulsion of Afghan Refugees Echoes a 40-Year History
The author (second from right in the front row) in the Khewa refugee camp in Pakistan in 2001. (Markus Matzel/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

This past Halloween, I decided to take my children and visit my mother, who lives in France and had been unwell for the last couple of months.

We are a large Afghan family scattered across Europe in the various countries in which we have found refuge in recent years. We are used to traveling to see each other, and so I boarded a train bound west from Hessen in Germany, where I live.

The next morning, as I was having breakfast with my parents and scrolling through social media on my phone, my feeds were full of the news that a shipping container carrying Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan from Pakistan had overturned in Punjab province, killing two and injuring over a dozen more.

The container was reportedly packed with Afghans, mostly women and children, who were reluctantly leaving Pakistan. The Pakistani government had given the deadline of Nov. 1 for undocumented Afghan refugees and migrants to leave the country, essentially expelling more than 1.5 million people. As I write this, over 300,000 Afghans have since crossed into Afghanistan, and Pakistani security forces are intensifying their crackdown, arresting and deporting Afghans in wide sweeps. Pakistani police are harassing, assaulting and detaining Afghans arbitrarily. They are even penalizing Pakistanis who are providing accommodation to Afghans.

Pakistan says the mass deportation is aimed at stopping extremism within its borders. With Afghanistan’s notoriously harsh winter fast approaching, and with the country the most oppressive it has been in decades, especially for women and girls, the expulsion feels especially cruel.

Many of these people have lived in Pakistan their entire lives. How can you expect someone to pack up and leave behind 30 or 40 years in the blink of an eye? As I watched a video of an excavator demolishing a row of mud-built houses in a refugee camp near Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, tears welled up in me. Everything looked so familiar: I too grew up in a home like this. I too was an Afghan refugee who had fled tyranny and war.

I was born in Pakistan in 1989, the fourth of five children. Like most Afghans my age, my birth took place in a refugee camp. After the Soviets invaded our country in 1979, Afghans fled in large numbers. Some went west to Iran, but most went east, to Pakistan. The Soviet Union’s 10-year war with Afghanistan created the largest refugee crisis the world had then known. Over 6 million Afghans left the country, including my family.

The night my parents got married, in 1984, fire and bombs lit up the sky as Afghans fought the Soviet occupation. On the night my older sister was born, a year later, there was heavy rain. Large, wet drops covered our village in Nangarhar, a province in the country’s east.

There was death everywhere and my family had to flee. When my sister was 6 weeks old, my parents bundled her up and trekked through the high, treacherous Hindu Kush mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan for five days. They traveled at night, to avoid being spotted by Soviet soldiers, though my father still was injured along the way. One bullet lodged in his knee and was taken out a week later. Another hit his right shoulder and came out the other side. To this day, he still has the scars. Eventually, they made it to neighboring Pakistan. They soon settled east of Peshawar, in a refugee camp called Khewa.

Though they sorely missed their homeland, they were right to leave: The Soviet war would kill 1 million Afghan civilians and destroy the country. During the Soviet occupation and the civil war of the early 1990s that followed, I lost 21 members of my family, both male and female.

And so, my life began in Khewa camp, which was named by its new inhabitants after our village in Nangarhar. But it could not be more different. In the village of Khewa, there were vast fields tilled by people who made tasty cheeses by hand. By contrast, my childhood in the refugee camp was tough; we lived in small, mud-built homes on dusty streets.

Before I was born, my mother set up the camp’s only school, Naseema Shaheed High School, which was named after my paternal aunt, who was martyred by the Soviets while serving food to her brothers, who were organizing against the occupation. I didn’t know much about my country, my homeland and my people. I was introduced to Afghanistan through the words and memories of my parents. My mother would recount tales of the Kabul she had grown up in, where women could wear jeans and skirts and not worry about covering their heads. In vivid detail, she would sketch the beautiful streets she used to walk in, her exciting classes and all her girlfriends. She was a revolutionary and loved reading Karl Marx. A large portrait of the German communist hung in our living room in the refugee camp; for years, I thought it must have been a painting of my grandfather.

My mom, Ghuncha, taught Pashto at the school for the next 20 years, and I am a proud graduate. Like our homes, the school was mud brick. When it poured rain, the water would leak through the roof and we girls would run around collecting it; we didn’t want anything to distract us from learning. We wore uniforms of white baggy trousers and pastel-blue tunics, and would crouch around our history teacher to hear about the Anglo-Afghan wars. I learned about the man who would become one of my idols, King Amanullah Khan, who led Afghanistan to independence from the British in 1919.

Ghuncha (right), the author’s mother, and her friend Nadia in 1977 in Musahe, in Logar province. At the time, the women were working for Save the Children. Nadia fled war and now lives in Canada. (Sparghai Basir)

Some of our teachers had been university graduates in Afghanistan, and some had to leave their studies halfway through and flee the war, just like us. The camp was unique in many ways. Our school had girls from different ethnic groups — Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pashtuns, like myself. Everybody had a different story, but their reason for coming to Pakistan was the same — to seek safety. For Nowruz, the Persian new year celebrated at the start of spring, different sports teams from our camp would show off their skills (my younger sister Fanoos became a keen soccer player, and eventually joined the Afghan national team), and thousands of refugees from neighboring camps would come and watch. Foreign journalists even visited, which explains the photo in this essay of me in the school where my mom taught.

We mostly kept to ourselves and didn’t like venturing out of the camp much. Just like today, Pakistanis didn’t respect us, and resented our being there. When we did walk around the villages and cities, people would yell “mahajar,” a derogatory term in Pashto for a refugee. I wanted to yell back that no one leaves their home by choice, that it pained us to be separated from Afghanistan.

Before I was born, Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), arrested my grandfather and four of my father’s brothers, accusing them of working against Pakistan’s interests. My father’s father was interrogated by police and hung upside down for hours during questioning. While my grandfather was released, four of his sons — my four uncles Mirwais, Sultan, Mahmood and Shakoor — and five friends of our family are still missing. My father says those times were summed up by a motto they used in the mosque, “Jihad-e-Afghanistan, Tahafaz-e-Pakistan,” which means “Jihad in Afghanistan is the protection of Pakistan.”

Indeed, today human rights groups say Afghan refugees are being used as a political pawn by Pakistan, which wants the U.S., Canada and European Union countries to fulfill their promises to resettle at-risk Afghans who fled after the Taliban takeover more than two years ago.

A few days ago, I watched an interview of a recently deported Afghan man on the Torkham border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was crying, saying he could live with losing his house but not his daughter’s future. In Pakistan, she was studying in high school. Now her hopes have been broken.

This is a thought that I cannot escape: My family chose to return to Afghanistan, where there was light and the promise of a better future. But for the Afghans being kicked out of Pakistan today, there is nothing but darkness — especially if you are a girl or a woman. Afghanistan is one of the worst places on earth to be a woman, if not the worst. There are large numbers of at-risk people who are sheltering in Pakistan who will almost certainly face persecution if and when they return, including hundreds of women’s rights activists, at least 200 journalists, members of religious minorities and people who worked for the ousted government.

Today, under Taliban rule, life for women and girls is much worse than it was when I was a young woman there. Afghanistan is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to go to school after sixth grade. Universities have been shut down as well, and women are not allowed to work anymore. The violence and the bombs may have lessened, but there are still people who would run through the mountains to seek a better life in another country.

When the U.S. ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001, I was joyous. Finally, I would see the country my mom had described. In 2005, when I was 15 years old, my father took us to visit Kabul. Four years had passed since the fall of the Taliban regime, and almost everything lay destroyed. My eyes almost shattered. Still, there was hope. The government would rebuild the hospitals, roads and schools. A fresh start was being promised, and it’s what we all wanted and craved.

In 2006, the Pakistani government said it had run out of funds to support the refugees. The school and the entire camp of Khewa was destroyed, with the message that refugees should go back to their country. We moved to Kabul.

Of course, I was sad to leave the place where I had spent my entire childhood, and I was upset to leave my friends, who were also “returning” to Afghanistan to the provinces of their parents. I left behind so many happy memories: my mom’s flower garden, the soccer ground, our pet dog.

But I was also excited to live in my fabled homeland, where I would no longer be an outsider. I believe we can truly value our land only once we have been a refugee, once we have been forced away from it.

Soon, I began university in Kabul, majoring in social studies to learn about a country I was still getting to know with my own eyes. In 2013, I started working with international nongovernmental organizations like CARE International and Save the Children. I fell in love with the mountains surrounding Kabul, which are crammed full with houses. On dark, velvet nights, they appeared like light boxes. I could spend hours looking at them.

But it didn’t take me long to realize that the Kabul my mother described no longer existed. Her schoolrooms were pockmarked with bullets; peace was elusive. Being a woman in Kabul was very difficult. This was not like life in the refugee camp. In Afghanistan, if you’re a woman, you’re met with judgment, even for simply breathing. I soon learned that this was not the country my mom had told me about each night as she tucked me into bed.

The author’s mother, Ghuncha, the author and her daughter Haala in France in November 2023. (Sparghai Basir)

In mid-2017, four years before the Taliban regained power for the second time, I resigned from Save the Children and with a heavy heart decided to leave Afghanistan. This time, I chose to come to Europe rather than Pakistan. I told myself that the war in Afghanistan would continue for at least another generation, and I saw little hope for my country or its people. In Europe, I felt, I would at least be respected as a refugee, unlike Pakistan.

I came to Germany and started life again from zero, which was very difficult. My two children were born here. Just like me, they were born to Afghan refugees in a country that was not their own. I want my young son and daughter to know about their country. In our living room, I have hung the tricolor Afghan flag, and my toddler daughter Haala has already memorized the pattern. A Dutch photographer friend who lived in Kabul has sent me landscapes of different parts of Afghanistan, and they are in the room, too, reminders of my beautiful country.

Just like my mother used to tell me about our sun-kissed homeland, I will tell my children about the Afghanistan I lived in and of my memories. I hope that one day, when she is older, I will be able to take her to Kabul, which I am aching to see again.

Meanwhile, the questions never end. When will we be able to have the lives we want and not the lives we fled from? When will Afghanistan become my — our — country again? When will I be able to lie in green fields, gazing up at the big sky, as if it wants me there?

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