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Shahzaz ud din

Jun 12, 2017

Autumn came early that year, leaves from walnut trees turning to the colour of dust. This had not happened before, the leaves falling before the chill of winter had set in, before the corn had been harvested.

That year, there were many things that had not happened before. The graveyard was devastated in the first bombing so we had buried my youngest sister beneath the walnut tree where she would play, gathering the green fruit of the tree and piling it in mounds before it collapsed. She would store the flesh of the walnuts in a small pouch my mother had embroidered with the colours of spring. I still have that pouch; its colours are not so vibrant now, its threads are worn and its seams undone along one side. But I still keep it with me, close to my heart, for it had belonged to my little sister, Ghanam Ranga, the Colour of Ripened Wheat, buried beneath her beloved walnut tree.
That was a long time ago. Ghanam Ranga died during the first war when the Soviet soldiers bombed our village in the Kunar Valley. The timber roof of our mud-plastered home collapsed with the shock of the bombing. It was late at night; we were asleep but managed to get out before the roof collapsed. Ghanam Ranga was left behind, fast asleep, pinned under the weight of the falling rubble. I do not like to remember the thin line of blood that trickled from her mouth nor the opaque film dimming her eyes or the dust of the debris in her hair. I want to remember her as she was when she played beneath the walnut tree, smiling, the pearls of her small teeth bright against the crimson of her mouth.
We had left our home that night, taking what we could with us, piling food stocks on our backs, carrying cooking pots and water vessels in our hands, whatever we could retrieve from the grave of our broken home. There was not much that had survived or much that we could take, but I remembered to fill my sister’s embroidered pouch with a handful of soil from the patch where we used to play outside our home. I carried that bit of my homeland with me wherever I went in these last forty years. I still have it, even if my homeland has forsaken me, even if my home is no more, just an empty shell, an evening stripped of sunlight.

It was a long journey coming down from the mountains to the city of Jalalabad. This is where my brother, Noorullah, the Light of Allah, had studied before leaving for Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. He was a brilliant young boy, always top of his class, always making our family proud. He could not make the journey to join us as we struggled to reach the border, desperate to flee the war. My father insisted that Noorullah remain in Mazar-e-Sharif, away from the destruction and dispossession. Even if Noorullah had to endure long separations from the family, my father remained firm in keeping him in the far north, out of harm’s way, studying to become a man of the world.

Noorullah was safe in the north where the government of the day had given him a scholarship. I remember being told it was godless people who had come to rule our country. At the age of twelve, I had no idea what that meant and just imagined that godless people were somehow helping my brother stay safe. While those who claimed to be fighting in the name of God could not protect us from the unbeliever who had come to rape our women and our land. For that is what we were told by the mujahideen, the men who fought in the name of God but who took away our women and stole our sheep and sacks of grain, leaving us to face winter with hunger stalking us.

Across the border, we made another home in another city, learnt another language, learnt to live with another culture. We were strangers in Punjab but that is where my father found a job as a chowkidar and that is where I learnt to sell fruit on a small vending cart, calling out to potential buyers in my uncertain adolescent voice. I thought often of my sister and brother, both separated from us now, one by death, the other by war. I wondered where my brother was — there was no news coming to us, other than the news of more killing, more destruction, more displacement.

I was nineteen when my father died. I gave up the fruit cart and took up his job as a chowkidar in the neighbourhood he had protected for seven years. People had trusted him with their lives and possessions. I repaired the old bicycle my father had bought when we came here in 1980; he had sold his battered watch to buy that cycle but he worked hard and slept little and earned enough to buy another watch, as well as a small patch of land upon which he built our home, where we grew to live like the others around us, residents of our adopted home, carving out a stake in its future.

I must have cycled through those lanes for hundreds of miles before my mother insisted that I get married and have a family of my own. My bride was so young, barely a teenager, but she was sturdy and bore nine children, the eldest a girl I named Bakht Zameen, remembering the richness of the earth where we had farmed, in the country we had left behind. When a son was born to us, I named him Nooruddin, the Light of the Faith, in memory of the boy who had disappeared from our lives like mist at noontime.

When my son started going to school, something unbelievable happened. On the way to school, we passed a number of fruit sellers; my son asked for a banana, I reached out for a dozen. When I reached into my pocket for money and placed a few rupees in the palm of the fruit seller’s hand, I noticed a scar on the man’s wrist. It was just like the raised welt my brother Noorullah had acquired when he had accidentally cut himself with a scythe on a rare visit home.

Now I stared at this stranger’s wrist and slowly looked up at his face. The shock of staring into my lost brother’s eyes took away my speech. He recognised me too and we laughed and cried and embraced and talked unintelligibly until my son pulled at my shirt and asked for a banana. I picked up my son and handed him to my brother. There were two Noors in my life now; one had come home after a long, dark night and the other was the light who found him.

Noorullah had spent four years in Moscow on a Russian government scholarship. He trained as an engineer and then returned to Kabul where he worked for a while in the Ministry of Defence. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Noorullah worked for the transitional government until all the different factions of the mujahideen started fighting for control over Kabul.

My brother had to flee our homeland when the Taliban started hunting for anyone who had been associated with the communist regime. I found it hard to understand why we both had to flee our homeland, one escaping the godless ones, the other running from the ones who brandished weapons in the name of God. None of this made sense to me. But now he was here, with us, reunited after years of separation.

Then things changed, once again. Once again there was tumult in our homeland and in our hearts. Another foreign army had decided to try its fate writing ours. On September 9, 2001, the leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated in a suicide attack. Two days later, disaster struck the mightiest nation in the world, and a month after that American troops invaded my homeland. Once again our land was ravaged, the crops burnt, the orchards chopped down. Once again there were thousands of homeless people, crossing the border, seeking refuge. Once again I was reminded that I was just one of them, a person permanently seeking refuge, unable to lay down roots in my adopted home, my children considered unwanted foreigners despite the fact that the law allowed anyone born in this country to become its citizens.

But that law did not apply to us, displaced because of a war we did not choose, a war that was fueled by agendas that were not ours. There was no protection for people like us, there were no choices except to lie low, to give up the dream of ever going back, to give up the aspiration of ever becoming citizens of our adopted home. Constantly hounded, visited at midnight by men in plain clothes, threatened by law enforcers, suspected by the military, distrusted by the politicians, I was just trying to eke out an existence for myself and my family, protecting the lives and properties of others.

A food stall in Quetta, Balochistan | Danial Shah

My brother returned to Kabul when American forces defeated the Taliban and installed a new regime. It has been sixteen years since my brother left us here; we know little about him except that he rose to become a brigadier in the Afghan military.

They say now we are to return to our homeland. We are told that the birthright of others does not apply to us, that we are unwanted, that we are a threat to the state and to the security of its citizens.

They will come with the truck tonight. I get up and walk through the lanes of the neighbourhood that has been our home for almost forty years. I stop at the corner shop and buy biscuits and sweets for the children who will be hungry during their journey. Then I take out the embroidered pouch that had belonged to my sister and open the seams, exposing the gravely earth that lay within. I show this to Nooruddin and tell him that he can add some soil from the floor of our hearth in this home before he left. My son takes the pouch and returns after a few minutes. He places the pouch in my hand. It is heavier now but not as heavy as my heart, for even though I hold the soil of my two homes in my palm, I know that I belong to neither of them.

Narrated by an Afghan living in Lahore in January 2017

Nazo has visited Afghanistan only once — briefly. The 14-year-old Afghan girl speaks in halting Urdu but her mother, walking alongside her daughter, speaks only in Pashto. A shuttlecock burqa conceals the older woman’s body. Even her eyes are hidden behind a netted patch of cloth. The burqa for her is more than what meets the eye. It stands for her identity, a way for her to follow an Afghan tradition regardless of what part of the world she is living in. It marks where she is from.

But Nazo is wearing a black abaya. “This,” she points to her abaya, “is so much more practical; I do not trip on it or have to lift it to speak to someone.”

Nazo lives in Sohrab Goth, a sprawling neighbourhood of unplanned slums spread over a pale brown, sun-bleached expanse of land on the northwestern edge of Karachi.

Small concrete-block homes, densely packed shops, cartwheels, spiky bushes and a bevy of trucks greet the commuter taking a left turn from the Karachi-Hyderabad Motorway (or Shahrah-e-Pakistan) to go to Sohrab Goth. Next to a row of abandoned apartment buildings, young boys are enjoying a game of cricket while others cheer them on a day in November last year. Older men in Pakhtun turbans squat in matchbox shops next to a restaurant at the entrance of the neighbourhood’s main commercial area, called Al-Asif Square.

A woman dressed in a blue burqa hurriedly crosses them and disappears around the corner. There are no other women in sight.

A Friday sermon being delivered in Pashto booms from the loudspeaker of a nearby mosque. The mullah is extolling the virtues of practising religion the right way. “We live in sinful times because we see women outside homes. Keep your women covered,” he urges his audience.

Behind the mosque is a narrow lane bounded on one side by an open sewer and on the other by a naan shop. The lady in the burqa pushes past the shop and turns into another lane that opens into interlinked alleyways lined with shops.

This is Sohrab Goth’s Meena Bazaar — reserved only for women. Its lanes are packed with women of different ages. Young girls are enjoying a packet of roasted corn near a dilapidated double-storey building; some older women, with their veils lifted over their heads, are bargaining for nose rings with the 10-year-old girl selling them. A man in a blue shalwar kameez hurriedly crosses them and disappears around the corner. There are no other men in sight — except a handful of shopkeepers.

Nazo and her mother are out shopping here in this bazaar — which could have been in any city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or, for that matter, Afghanistan. The language being spoken here is Pashto and head-to-toe burqas in various shades of blue and grey are everywhere.

How then did Nazo get introduced to an abaya amid this mini-Afghanistan?

“My bhabi (brother’s wife) got it for me,” she says.

Her bhabi is a Pakistani girl who wears an abaya in public. “My brother met her in a park.”

Not exactly in a park. They met in a home next to a park.

She had come to open the front door of her sister’s small home. This was also his friend’s place. Her sister and his friend were married to each other.

They shared little else.

Saeed is an Afghan; Shukrana is a Pakistani. He speaks Pashto at home; her mother language is Seraiki. He has never been to school; she has studied until grade three.

“But we both come from poor families,” says Saeed. And they both know no other city than Karachi. This has been home to them as far as they can remember.

On the night after they first met, Saeed started receiving text messages on his phone. He did not know who their sender was and what the text was about. He lay awake, staring at his phone while his parents, three brothers, a sister-in-law and Nazo slept around him in their two-room rented house inside a narrow mud-caked lane in Sohrab Goth.

A few more messages arrived the next night too. Just two kilometres away in Samanabad neighbourhood, Shukrana was texting him from a phone she had stolen from under her mother’s pillow.

When she saw Saeed next at her sister’s place, she pulled him on the side with a city girl’s confidence and demanded to know why he had been ignoring her messages. “I don’t know how to read,” he responded with a wide smile, his kind eyes looking directly into hers. Shukrana found him endearing. “You should have just called back,” she said laughing.

This is how they fell in love.

Saeed works at a towel-making factory in Karachi, a job held by his father before he retired a few years ago. He stitches a few hundred towels each day and earns up to 600 rupees for a day’s work.

When Saeed decided to marry Shukrana, his parents were rather worried. It was the first time that they would have a non-Afghan as a family member. They agreed to the marriage but not without setting a few preconditions. Shukrana must help in the kitchen; their children must learn Pashto; and she would eventually move to Saeed’s ancestral village in Afghanistan.

Saeed and Shukrana got married in 2012. A year later, they made their way to the Chaman border post in Balochistan along with the rest of their family. They handed over their Proof of Registration (PoR) cards – issued by Pakistani authorities – to border guards, received 200 US dollars each from the United Nations and crossed into Afghanistan.

They spent only a few months in Saeed’s native village in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province. Shukrana suffered a miscarriage and failed to adjust to the rural lifestyle there. Other members of the family also struggled in coping with social, economic and physical conditions in the war-ravaged, cold climate of the area. There were no job opportunities, and education and healthcare facilities were conspicuous by their absence.

Saeed and Shukrana decided to return to Pakistan immediately. The rest of their family would join them in Karachi a few months later. On their way back, the couple crossed the border at Torkham to reach Peshawar. From there onwards, they decided to take a train to Karachi.

They went to a railway booking office and asked for two tickets. “CNIC please,” came the request from the officer on the other side. Saeed showed them Shukrana’s Pakistani Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC). “My wife is my CNIC, she is everything for me,” he says. His eyes light up as he recounts the story.

Saeed with his daughter at his home in Sohrab Goth, Karachi | Danial Shah

Most Afghan refugees do not have a Pakistani wife to thank for such small mercies. If they do not have their registration documents in order, Pakistani authorities prohibit them from accessing a large number of public services and facilities. Many schools, hospitals and employers go a step further and ask for a Pakistani CNIC.

Refugees also cannot buy land or build houses — at least in theory, though in practice many Afghans run businesses and own properties on Pakistani identities that they have acquired mostly by illegal means.

Refugees cannot buy automobiles either.

How come you have a motorcycle parked inside your house, I ask Saeed. He rides it to work daily. “I bought it using the CNIC of Shukrana’s brother-in-law,” he says.

Shukrana puts her newborn son Saifullah to sleep as she asks me where I live in Karachi. I tell her I live near the sea. She looks at me in amazement. “I have never been to the sea,” she says.

Their two-year-old daughter, Nazneen, is playing with her father. I wonder about her future. Will she ever get the chance to see the world beyond the four walls of her home — wherever that home is; here in Karachi or there in Kunduz. Or will she lead life as her grandmother, mother and aunt Nazo have — secluded and segregated with little idea of what the world beyond home looks like?

Asuffocating feeling of dread engulfs Shah Sarwar’s small two-room apartment in Sohrab Goth on a cloudy day in early November 2017. He went missing a few hours earlier and friends and relatives have got together to console his family. An old lady sitting in a corner points to his 16-year-old daughter, Rabia, and prays she does not have the same fate as her mother and grandmother.

A senior teacher of Arabic at Imam Azam Abu Hanifa Middle School, an education institution for children not far from his house, Sarwar was woken up by a team of Pakistan Rangers inside his home at 4:00 am. They took him to an unknown place for interrogation. The principal of the school, Abdul Jabbar Madini, was also whisked away in the same manner the same day.

The two remain missing for more than a month.

His wife receives a call at 12:30 pm on December 13, 2017. The caller asks her to reach a nearby office of the rangers. She immediately goes there along with a male relative. They see Madini’s family waiting there too.

Sarwar and Madini are released and handed over to their relatives. “We were treated well,” is all they say as they walk back home.

Relatives, friends and well-wishers gather at Sarwar’s house again — this time to celebrate his return. His mother-in-law, Parwana, is also visiting. While distributing sweets to everyone, she breaks into *attan, a folk dance.

Her 16-year-old granddaughter, Rabia, is serving green tea with pomegranate-flavoured sweets in Iranian packaging, especially procured for the occasion. These sweets taste the best when kept in one’s mouth as tea is sipped. They are meant as a tribute to Sarwar’s native land, Kandahar, which is known for its fruit orchards. “Its pomegranates are heavenly,” Rabia says.

Kandahar is an oasis surrounded by a desert. It is also the final resting place of Ahmad Shah Durrani, founder of modern-day Afghanistan. Next to his tomb is one of Afghanistan’s most sacred places of worship: the shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him).

Legend has it that Durrani brought the cloak from Bukhara in 1768. The then ruler of Bukhara, Amir Murad Beg, initially allowed Durrani to have a look at the relic. When the Afghan ruler insisted that he wanted to take it to Kandahar, Beg said the robe could not be separated from its platform. Durrani ordered his army to carve out the platform and carry it to Kandahar along with the cloak.

The public rarely gets to see the cloak these days. Its last public sighting happed in 1996 when the Taliban chief Mullah Omar held it up in front of a large crowd of his followers in order to validate his status as a successor to both Durrani and the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him).

Sarwar was nearly 20 years of age when two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001, leading to the American invasion of Afghanistan. He left his village near Kandahar city and migrated to Karachi.

A few months later, his family elders decided to marry him to one of Parwana’s daughters. They saw each other for the first time on the day of their wedding.

They are planning a similar wedding for Rabia. Her father visited Saudi Arabia a few months ago and chose one of his nephews living there for her.

My immediate response is a string of seemingly unrelated questions: How did he travel to Saudi Arabia? Does he have a passport? How does he afford to pay for his travel?

“He goes from Karachi to Kabul by bus. Once he is there, he uses his Afghan passport to fly to Riyadh where his brother, who is employed as a construction worker, and his mother live,” Rabia responds. He visits Saudi Arabia twice a year and has visited Turkey as well, she says.

He had just returned from Saudi Arabia when the rangers took him away.

Imam Azam Abu Hanifa Middle School at Al-Asif Square, Karachi | Danial Shah

Syed Mustafa, a middle-aged man with a short grey stubble and closely cropped hair, is widely loved and respected by Afghan refugees living in Sohrab Goth and has become a community elder by virtue of his knowledge about various identity registration processes in Pakistan. With a shy smile, he welcomes two young men on a November day last year in the office of a school he runs. They need his advice to enrol for their Proof of Registration (PoR) cards.

Mustafa was a college student in Kabul when he had to leave the city and make his way to Karachi. The Taliban had emerged at the time out of a vacuum left by the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989 and the subsequent infighting among various mujahideen groups. The rise of rapacious warlords in the countryside had led to a virtual breakdown of government in Kabul.

The Taliban implemented a strict interpretation of Sharia law. Schools for girls were shut down, television sets were destroyed and men were instructed to grow beards. Their harsh rule forced many Afghans to leave their homeland and migrate to Pakistan. Syed Mustafa was one them.

Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s prime minister at the time. While visiting Manila in February 1995, she said: “If Afghans want to cross the border, I do not stop them … most have families here.”

Many of these refugee families have been living in Sohrab Goth since the 1980s. The neighbourhood has been home to various types of refugees since even earlier — Bengalis and Biharis displaced from East Pakistan in 1971 being among its first non-native residents. The latest inhabitants of Sohrab Goth are Pakistani Pakhtuns uprooted from tribal areas along the Pak-Afghan border as well as from other parts of northern Pakistan due to an ongoing fight between religious militants and security forces.

The neighbourhood could easily be among the most undeveloped and rundown parts of Karachi, and its various communities often fail to maintain boundaries to keep them apart from each other. An Afghan man can be seen sitting in a lane right outside his home with his Bengali wife, both peeling potatoes to sell to French fries stalls. They fell in love while living as neighbours and have been married for 30 years.

Parwana was a young widow when her 19-year-old son died in a battle with Soviet forces. While she was still mourning his death, she heard a knock at the door of her home in Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Afghanistan’s northwestern province of Balkh. Mujahideen stood at the entrance. She assumed they had come to condole. They instead told her to send her second son to the battlefield as a replacement for the first. She slammed the door shut in their face.

The muhajideen continued to return, threatening Parwana that they would forcibly take her son to jihad if he did not join them voluntarily. She offered them a cow instead but they wanted her son.

Afghanistan was under a communist administration at the time. This government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) had come into power in 1978 after overthrowing President Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan in a bloody coup celebrated as Inqilab-e-Saur (the revolution of the month of Saur) since it happened in the second month of the Persian Calendar.

The communists entrenched themselves in Kabul but large swathes of the countryside remained out of their control — as well as up in arms against them. To put down this rebellion, the new regime’s international backer, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics sent its troops into Afghanistan in December 1979.

Not before another violent revolution, though, in which the PDPA’s Khalq faction headed by Nur Mohammad Taraki was overthrown by the party’s Parcham faction headed by Hafizullah Amin and Babrak Karmal. Taraki was killed in October 1979 and replaced by Amin who was also assassinated two months later and was replaced by Karmal. Throughout the 1980s, the Soviet Union poured billions of US dollars into the war in Afghanistan. At one stage, more than 100,000 Soviet soldiers were fighting in the country.

These events are recorded by Russian historians as an intervention. Western historians call them an invasion. To the Afghans, all this was just plain unacceptable.

People crossing into Afghanistan at Chaman border | Danial Shah

They continued to resist it with whatever means they could put together. This resistance soon coalesced into various mujahideen groups, strongly supported by a wide variety of international actors — the United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and Egypt, among others.

Parwana knew leaving her home was her only option if she wanted to protect her family — two sons and two small daughters. So they fled, hiding behind rocks, lying low, muffling children’s cries, crawling to hilltops, peering over from summits. They found a van that would take them to the border for five rupees. They were stopped for security searches multiple times and had to switch over to another van to reach the border at Torkham.

Once they crossed the border, they were taken to a camp on the outskirts of Peshawar. Parwana remembers being welcomed with warmth. “We were all Muslim brothers [and sisters] then,” she says in a conversation in the winter of 2017.

A few years later, Parwana travelled to Karachi and settled in an area known as Muhajir Camp. More than three and a half decades later, she still lives there.

Today, her grandchildren live in various parts of Karachi. Rabia, born to Parwana’s daughter and Shah Sarwar, has grown up to become a teacher at the same school where her father works.

On a December 2017 day, Rabia is wearing a long, blue velvet kameez with shalwar. At her first floor, two-bedroom apartment, she shares seating space with her grandmother next to a window as the two talk to each other — two Afghan women from two different generations who do not just dress differently but also speak differently. Yet both have a shared yearning — to be able to go back home to Afghanistan someday.

The younger one shares her name with a 10th century poet, Rabia Balkhi, born, raised and buried in the older one’s home province that also happens to be the birthplace of one Jalaluddin who came to be known in the 13th century as Maulana Rumi and wrote immortal verses about love.

Rabia Balkhi is said to be the first female poet to produce work in both Arabic and Persian. She is also believed to have died after her brother, the ruler of Balkh, ordered her veins to be cut as punishment for falling in love with a slave.

For centuries, young men and women visited her grave to seek her blessings for the success of their own trysts. When the Taliban took over Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, public access to her shrine was blocked.

Love, even for a medieval poet, suddenly became a sin.


Syed Jamaluddin Afghani School is a modest two-room establishment in Sohrab Goth. The paint is peeling off its walls that are otherwise decorated with posters and photos to make the place welcoming.

A photograph of Aristotle hangs near a whiteboard next to which is a quote by Shakespeare – mentioned as Sheikh Peer – in the school’s office. The wall behind a large desk is adorned with a world map.

I ask students in a class how many neighbouring countries we have.

“Six,” they respond in unison. “China, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan,” they say loudly.

I am perplexed. The students are not. We in my question means Afghanistan to them. Most of them have never been to that country but it is fascinating how they still regard it as home.

These students are studying an Afghan curriculum (unlike those at Imam Azam Abu Hanifa Middle School who are studying a Pakistani curriculum). Hundreds of other schools, operating amid Afghan refugee communities, offer the same Afghan curriculum because those not registered with Pakistani authorities cannot take college admission examinations here.

These exams require students to have either a Pakistani CNIC or a PoR card or any proof of being a member of a Pakistani family. Many, if not most, Afghans living in Pakistan have none of these documents, says Syed Mustafa, principal of the school.

Studying an Afghan curriculum also helps students prepare for their integration into Afghanistan’s education system should they decide to return to their home country, says Mustafa. Many of them, indeed, go to Afghanistan to pursue a college education there but only to return to Pakistan to try to find work here, he adds.

Following their home country’s education system is a standard affair in refugee communities across the world and is facilitated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) so as to keep the refugees abreast with conditions in their own country. Sometimes, it results in quite awkward situations.

The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for instance, wrote a letter to UNHCR on January 12, 2018 highlighting aspects of the Afghan curriculum that the provincial authorities saw as antagonistic towards Pakistan. In one of the most glaring problems mentioned in the letter, the Gilgit-Baltistan region is shown in books for Afghan refugees as a part of India. At another place, students are told that India is Afghanistan’s friend with which Kabul must maintain good ties.

A United Nations official responded to these objections on January 22, 2018. “There have been no changes to the textbooks currently used in refugee schools in Pakistan,” he said in a statement. He further stated that UNHCR would continue its ”practice [of informing] the government of Pakistan in advance of any potential changes relating to the education of Afghan refugee children”.

Haji Abdul Wahid at his restaurant in Quetta | Danial Shah

Trucks, buses, cars, animal-pulled carts and wheelbarrows jostle for space through a spectacular setting: golden mountains transitioning into intimidating shades of brown and grey, rising up on either side of the Chaman border crossing like walls of a fortress. People are crossing in thousands on foot, not in queues but in clusters. A Frontier Corps (FC) official does a body search of every man walking through the post — almost like a robot. He cursorily runs his hands over their clothes and allows them to move forward.

A woman covered in a shawl suddenly appears in front of him. She is holding a child in her arms and carrying a metal suitcase on her head. The official sets about to body search her but checks himself just in time. He directs her towards a tiny room to the side. She refuses to go there, pushes him aside and crosses into Pakistan.

The crossing is an elaborate structure. It is built in such a way that all pedestrians have to take a narrow track to pass through it. There is a road parallel to the track for vehicles — the two are separated by barbed wire. Everyone and everything has to pass through metal detecting scanners.

Abdullah Jan Ghaznavi, a poet and a performer of Afghan descent who resides in Quetta, remembers the Chaman border as something entirely different. “Just a brick marked it,” he says. First, it changed into a barrier marked by an iron chain and eventually into a towering building, with two main portals and two side gates.

Rashid Ashfaq, one of the FC officials posted at the crossing, says, on average, 5,000 people and 300 vehicles cross the Pak-Afghan border here each day. Officials manning the post check the identification documents of everyone wanting to move through it in either direction. A Pakistani CNIC, an Afghan identity card known as tazkira and/or a PoR card allow people to cross over. Those who do not have these documents are turned back from the crossing and usually look for illegal ways to go to the other side.

This looks like a neat arrangement except that it is complicated by a fundamental question: who qualifies to be a Pakistani and who can be considered an Afghan when people living on both sides of the border are not just from the same ethnicity but sometimes also from the same tribe?

Consider Haji Abdul Wahid.

Wearing a stiff white skullcap above his high forehead and sporting a neatly trimmed white beard, he runs a restaurant named Afghan Sakhi Mazar Sharif Hotel after his hometown in Afghanistan. Located inside one of Quetta’s main market areas, off Jinnah Road, the place is intricately decorated with plush Afghan carpets that adorn the floor as well as the walls. A framed map of Afghanistan on a cloth is hung behind the cash counter.

The restaurant is full of patrons – men, women, children – on a late December day last year. Wahid is communicating with his waiters and customers in Pashto. Nothing looks out of place: the cuisine, the ambience and the people. Nobody can tell who is a local and who is a foreigner.

Wahid, who is in his sixties, came to Quetta as a refugee in the 1980s and, like many other Afghans running successful businesses in the city, he has done really well for himself. The signs of their commercial success are visible everywhere in the form of shops that specialise in selling Afghanistan-produced products such as carpets and dry fruits as well as merchandise smuggled from Afghanistan that includes cars and the latest electronics. Similar establishments can be spotted in many parts of Pakistan, especially in Karachi, Peshawar and Rawalpindi.

Many of these Afghans are well-integrated in Pakistan. They have developed strong matrimonial relations and other family ties this side of the border. For all intents and purposes, they are Pakistanis yet they maintain their links with their extended families in Afghanistan and often travel between the two countries, both for business trips and family engagements.

Many of them have also obtained Pakistani identification documents.

Addressing a press conference in April 2017, the then interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan revealed that Pakistan had suspended more than 350,000 CNICs on the suspicion of being illegally issued to foreigners. Out of these, around 225,000 were allegedly held by Afghans, he said. In the most infamous case, a Pakistani CNIC was issued to the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour who was killed in an American drone strike in Balochistan on May 21, 2016.

Baloch politicians believe that Pakhtun parties in the province have helped Afghan refugees to get Pakistani CNICs in order to boost their Pakhtun votes. They point out that Quetta district’s population has increased from just 773,936 people to around 2.28 million people between 1998 and 2017, mostly because of the influx of Afghans. Killa Abdullah, another Pakhtun-dominated district in the province, has seen its 1998 population of 360,724 people more than double to 757,578 people in 2017.

Nawabzada Lashkari Raisani, a former member of Senate and a senior leader of the Balochistan National Party-Mengal, complains that Afghans have taken up a large number of jobs and business opportunities in Quetta.

Pakhtun politicians, such as Abdul Rahim Ziaratwal, an official of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, on the other hand, argue that lands on both sides of the Durand Line, which separates Pakistan from Afghanistan, have traditionally belonged to Pakhtuns. They have been moving around in this region for centuries both for commercial and weather-related reasons before the British drew the border between Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent literally through the sand and mountains in 1893. “Durand Line does not mean a border for most of them even today since people living on either side of it are the same in terms of language and culture,” Ziaratwal says.

An elderly Afghan outside the NADRA office at Jamali Goth in Karachi | Danial Shah

Abdul Nasir is making his fourth visit to the Sindh High Court in August last year. His sparse black beard, hard white skullcap, Central Asian features and thick accent make him stand out among litigants and lawyers milling on the court’s premises.

Nasir, a potter in his early forties, is fighting charges of being an illegal alien in Karachi. The police arrested him in the winter of 2016 for failing to provide any documentation of his identity. He was released 20 days later on bail but, to avoid being deported to Afghanistan, he needs a piece of paper that helps him prove that he is a bona fide Afghan refugee. He always keeps his young daughter, about seven years old, with him while moving around in the city so that the police do not bother him again.

His lawyer is a tall burly man who speaks fast in Urdu, a language not native to Nasir. He can barely understand what is transpiring between the lawyer and the judge during that day’s proceedings. At the end of it, the judge defers the case for another hearing, giving Nasir more time to get his documents in place.

A refugee registration centre, where he can obtain the required documents, is located in Quetta Town, a neighbouhood about five kilometres to the northeast of Sohrab Goth. Operating from a rented house, it is run by Pakistan’s National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) and caters to 400-450 Afghan refugees every day.

Right inside its entrance, representatives of the International Organization for Migration, an inter-governmental entity that works closely with UNHCR, man two desks. They are here to supervise the registration process.

Each refugee can receive an Afghan Citizen Card after passing through a series of procedures for data entry and identity verification, including an endorsement by the officials of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. Sent by the Afghan government to collaborate with NADRA, these officials ascertain and certify the refugees’ place of origin in Afghanistan and determine their status in Pakistan — distinguishing refugees from those who have come here for other purposes.

“If they are here to receive medical treatment or to get education or to be with family then they are not people of concern to us,” says Suprity Timilsina, a UNHCR official in Quetta.

Faheema Toufiq, an Islamabad-based director at Pakistan’s Chief Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees, explains that the project to issue Afghan Citizen Cards was started in August 2017 in order to replace the PoR cards introduced with UNHCR’s assistance back in 2006.

“The purpose of the project is to document Afghan refugees with the ultimate goal to ensure their voluntary repatriation with dignity and honour,” she says.

According to Faheema, all Afghan refugees living in Pakistan were to have returned home by 2009 but this deadline was extended to 2015 and later to December 2017 due to unfavourable political and economic circumstances in Afghanistan. In February this year, she says, the deadline has been extended again to June 2018.

As of March 13, 2018, according to Faheema, 196,630 Afghan Citizen Cards have been distributed by all the registration offices working in different parts of Pakistan. Another 690,999 applications were being processed by that day.

Afghan women and children outside a NADRA office in Karachi | Zehra Nawab

“The migrant is, perhaps, the central or defining figure of the twentieth century,” Salman Rushdie wrote in his essay on German writer Günter Grass.

That would be true for Afghans even in the 21st century. They constituted the largest refugee population in the world – with 3.6 million of them living outside their homeland (2.2 million in Pakistan; 1.2 million in Iran and the rest elsewhere) – in 2001. By September of that year, an additional 800,000 of them crossed the border into Pakistan.

After many official drives to send them back, the number of registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan stood at 1,386,985 in December 2017. Many more live in the country either as non-registered refugees or as locals after having acquired Pakistani identity cards and passports.

UNHCR is often criticised for a slow repatriation of Afghan refugees. In the whole of 2017, according to its own statement issued in January 2018, only 60,000 registered Afghan refugees returned home from Pakistan.

UNHCR representatives in Islamabad stress the importance of sending the refugees back to Afghanistan in a “voluntary, gradual and dignified way”. A sudden massive influx of people will place immense pressures on both the resources and the service sector of Afghanistan, says Qaiser Khan Afridi, a public information associate working with UNHCR.

Left to themselves, many Afghans may prefer to stay in Pakistan as long as they can. An elderly man outside the refugee registration office in Karachi gives vent to these feelings when he expresses his displeasure at being made to register as an alien. “Why are we treated differently from the rest?” he says. “Isn’t everyone an immigrant in this city?”

What then is the difference between a refugee and a migrant? Is it merely a matter of semantics or is there any substantial difference between the two? More importantly, how long does a migrant or a refugee have to live in a country to become its citizen?

The Pakistan Citizenship Act states that any person born in Pakistan after 1951 is a citizen of Pakistan. That however does not apply to the two generations of children born to Afghan refugees since the 1980s.

Children born to a Pakistani mother and a foreign national father after April 18, 2000 are also treated as citizens of Pakistan. In the case of children born to Afghan militant fathers and Pakistani mothers in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, even this right is reported to have been denied on orders of security and intelligence agencies.

Nudrat Fatima, a NADRA supervisor at Karachi’s refugee registration office, sums up the official Pakistani view when she says: “Afghans will not have the incentive to leave if these citizenship rights are provided to them.”

The print version of this story misspelled Suprity Timilsina's name as Spriti Timilsena. We apologise for this error.

Opening image: A view of Quetta city from Marriabad | Danial Shah

*Name has been changed upon request

Additional reporting by Danial Shah

The Herald is thankful to the Centre of Excellence in Journalism at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, for their technical support for this project.

This story is part of a special multimedia project. The print version was published in the April 2018 issue of the Herald as a special report. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

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