The Forgotten Refugees


It is nearly midnight in Peshawar, a small city in northwest Pakistan, and Adrogal Gul is laying out his blanket, preparing for bed. His mattress is a slab of concrete tucked in the lee of a dumpster in a filthy parking lot near the city’s White Mosque. The sidewalk is cold and his blanket is thin, perhaps mercifully so, as it is home to vermin that leave nickel-sized welts.

Forty or so men line the sidewalks nearby. Like Adrogal, nearly all are Afghan refugees.

If Adrogal is lucky, he won’t be asleep for long. Most nights the trucks arrive around 2 a.m., air horns blaring a rude wake-up call. The drivers offer long shifts and short money; if chosen, the laborers will work until 7 p.m., loading sacks of grain, or gravel and stone, or electronics. The pay for 17 hours of hard labor? Fifty rupees, or 82 cents.

Adrogal offers up a hand so swollen and calloused it resembles a small baseball glove, then considers his plight. “I came to Pakistan as a baby in my mother’s arms,” he says. Except for two short stays in Afghanistan, he has lived all of his 22 years in Pakistan, mostly in refugee camps and squatter settlements. Yet he has no citizenship. In fact, he has no birth certificate or documentation of any kind. Officially he does not exist. He is what the Pakistanis call “an illegal refugee.”

Adrogal’s father once had a small shop where he bought and resold scraps of paper and bone and bits of rope that the legions of boys here scour from the gutter. Adrogal would like to have a small shop also, he says, and though he has no idea how to go about achieving it, some nights he lies on the ground thinking about this better life.

For two decades, Pakistan has seen wave after wave of refugees arrive from Afghanistan. In the 1980s, they fled the Soviets; in the early ’90s, the mujahideen; in ’96 it was the Taliban. Today, they’re escaping the American bombing campaign. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has set up tent cities to accommodate this latest group, whose numbers could reach into the hundreds of thousands, and international aid organizations are desperately raising tens of millions of dollars to pay for their care. Yet none of that money is earmarked for Afghanistan’s forgotten refugees, the estimated 2 million expatriates already residing in Pakistan. “My boss got all excited about the money coming in to help the new refugees,” relates a United Nations employee. “I asked her, ‘What about the old refugees?’ She said, ‘Forget about the old refugees.’ ”

A tiny percentage of these Afghans—merchants, teachers, and other professionals—has made the transition into Pakistan’s upper classes, yet the vast majority live in shantytowns, in mud huts, tents, and caves. Their children suffer the effects of malnutrition—nearly all are illiterate. In a country where the average Pakistani makes about a dollar and a half a day, Afghans are the poorest of the poor, consigned to a semipermanent underclass.

As for the Pakistanis, 20 years of expending scarce resources on outsiders has severely tried their charitable impulses. “We can’t even feed our own people, how are we supposed to feed 2 million Afghans?” is the refrain heard most often. And so the Afghans are harassed and unwelcome in their host country, and unable to return to a homeland devastated by 22 years of war, carpeted with an estimated 10 million land mines.

Though traumatized by their exodus, many of the new refugees will fare better than their countrymen who have been here for years. Once registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the newcomers will be provided with food rations, schools, medical care, and a small stipend. Those not able to register—the thousands using smugglers’ routes to bypass the often closed Pakistan border—will simply seep into the vast underground of Afghans already here.

I-11/4, Islamabad

Twenty years ago, there was a small bus stop opposite a fruit market on the outskirts of Islamabad, in a sector known as I-11/4. Afghan refugees—roaming the country searching for relatives and work—began to pitch tents near the depot during long layovers. Today there are an estimated 200,000 Afghans on the site living in an interconnected maze of mud houses that stretches as far as the eye can see, down through washes and up over the sides of rolling hills. Then the huts give way to tents, and further still, to a few caves with beds and belongings neatly placed. There is no potable water, no electricity, no gas, no publicly financed school. I-11/4 is a place where child labor is the norm, where scores of infants die before their first birthday.

From the roofs of the mud houses, you can look out toward Islamabad proper and see new developments creeping across the open fields toward the camp. International Islamic University’s new campus, due to open next month, went up just a kilometer or so away; some of the world’s poorest refugees are occupying prime real estate. Developers have leapfrogged the refugees, purchasing plots as far away as I-17.

In Islamabad’s I-11/4 refugee camp, a graveyard has become a thoroughfare.
(Photograph by Michael Kamber)

For those I-11/4 residents who want to send their children to school, the obstacles are formidable. At the Pakistan Literacy Cell, Shaista Abassi leads about 80 children through the alphabet. They sit shoulder to shoulder in the dirt courtyard, some with books and pencils, others following as best they can. This is one of two public schools in the community, both funded by UNICEF, which spends about $2000 a year to pay the salaries of three teachers here.

“When we ask the Capital Development Authority to build more schools,” Shaista says, “they tell us, ‘This community is only temporary, we’re going to demolish it soon, so there is no need to build a school here.’ ”

CDA’s director of municipal administration, Syed Mustafain Kazmi, confirms her account. “These people are encroachers,” he says. “There is no law that says we have to give basic necessities to encroachers.” The result is that there are 260 public school seats for an estimated 125,000 children in the community.

According to Kazmi, who oversees the area for the city, I-11/4 is “the most dangerous community in all of Islamabad. . . . After the Afghans started arriving, they caused so many cracks in our society,” he says. “They are involved in all types of immorality: prostitution, womanizing; they brought us Kalashnikov culture, heroin culture, lawlessness.”

And, he said in an interview last week, their days of spreading mayhem are numbered. A plan is already in place to bring in soldiers and caravans of trucks and forcibly transplant the community to a remote tent city near the Afghan border, hundreds of miles away. “Then they’ll know that they can’t go wherever they want in this country,” Kazmi explained.

Kudrat-Ullah sits on the floor of his mud house in I-11/4 and considers how far his fortunes have fallen. The two-story house across the border in Kabul is gone, as are his five acres of wheat, his vineyard, and all his livestock. He looks around at the empty room in which he lives with seven other family members. “We have just the clothes on our backs,” he says. “We have lost everything else.”

Kudrat-Ullah’s story is complicated, perhaps typically so. He first arrived in Pakistan approximately 12 years ago and has twice moved back to his homeland only to be driven out. His time in Pakistan has been a series of temporary stays—doubled up with relatives or living in mud huts or in tents. Like many men here, he has a tattered, faded identity card from one of the scores of mujahideen militia that once dominated Afghanistan. He fought with the warlord Rabbani against the Soviets, he says. “Now the Soviets are Rabbani’s friend,” he adds ruefully.

Four years ago Kudrat-Ullah tried his own realignment—with the Taliban. “They found out I had fought against them,” he says. “They refused me and cut down my trees and demolished my house.” He returned once more to Pakistan and ended his wanderings at I-11/4. He bribed the CDA inspectors, he says, and they allowed him to build a mud house on the fringes of the community. In Afghanistan, his neighborhood was made up of an extended community of relatives and clansmen. Family by family, they began to trickle into I-11/4. Today Kudrat-Ullah’s Kabul neighborhood has reconstituted itself—minus possessions, citizenship, and job prospects—in this compound of thatch-roofed dwellings that has grown to about 50 families.

Some estimate that 50,000 men and boys find work in the sprawling 25-acre fruit market nearby, the vast majority of them Afghans. Kudrat-Ullah is in his mid forties and rail thin, with bony wrists and sunken cheeks. The merchants and truckers pick the younger men first—and Kudrat-Ullah can usually find employment only three days a week carrying boxes of produce. His pay is 60 rupees a day, or 97 cents. He has 10 children. The youngest, the one he is most worried about, is two years old. The entire family is malnourished, and his wife has had little milk for the infant. There is no money for formula, but fortunately the child is out of the danger zone—he has just begun to eat solid foods. They can now feed him mashed-up banana peels and melon rinds, something many families here are forced to do; it keeps the children alive.

Dr. Raheemullah Aalamy, a Kabul University School of Medicine graduate who runs a small, dirt-floored clinic in the colony, reports he has seen 500 infants die in the last two years, most of typhoid, malaria, and dysentery—all preventable diseases caused largely by lack of sanitation. He points to a small stream of urine and feces just outside his door, a few feet from where a dozen patients are waiting. “This is part of the problem here,” he says. The packed-dirt streets are bracketed by open sewers, breeding grounds for bacteria and the mosquitoes that spread disease and death through the community.

In I-11/4, male children can mean the difference between starving and surviving: At the age of four, the children are sent out into the streets to scavenge for rotten fruit and vegetables. By seven or eight they can hold down a modest job, 20 cents a day to run errands or sell food by the side of the road. At 10, they begin to make real money, running produce or unloading trucks for 75 cents a day. With a husband and three or four boys working full time, a family can bring in as much as $3 a day. The girls are kept around the house to help cook, carry water, and help with the younger children. Six- and seven-year-old girls wander the streets with infants perched on their hips.

Kudrat-Ullah’s sons aren’t sure how old they are; Assad-Ullah thinks he might be 10 or 11, Aziz-Ullah is pretty sure he is eight. They leave the house in the chilly predawn blackness to join the enormous throng converging on the fruit and vegetable market. Except for the muffled sounds of thousands of feet, the streets are eerily silent. Occasionally, a car passes and one can see hundreds of children and an equal number of men silhouetted in the dusty shafts of light.

There is a mosque at the foot of the market. Most days the boys stop to offer their prayers, but today they are late. Aziz-Ullah heads off into the darkness with a group of small boys to buy his stock of plastic bags. He will roam the market for most of the day, reselling the bags at a small markup, netting perhaps 25 cents.

Assad-Ullah lines up with about two dozen other boys in front of a dark cellar. A man out front checks Assad-Ullah in by writing a number on his hand, and the boy disappears into the cellar, ducking down a series of passageways. He comes into a room with a narrow aisle and bananas stacked to the ceiling. Each boy places a wicker basket on his head and lines up in front of a man who piles it high with large stalks of fruit.

Each load of bananas weighs about 25 pounds, and the boys, many much younger than Assad-Ullah, make their way carefully back through the passageways to the street and to the selling area up the block. Their journey is not far, maybe an eighth of a mile from beginning to end. But the streets are soon packed with pushcarts, horses, and honking multicolored trucks, and the ground becomes slick with crushed produce.

Assad-Ullah’s boss is a heavyset, bearded Pakistani. The price of the bananas is being bid up and down by the minute and a quick supply is essential to his profit. He shouts at the boys, calling them names and hitting them with a switch made of a banana stock. There is other violence here as well: On a number of occasions, bombs have gone off in the crowded market. The death toll is usually under half a dozen, and the Afghans seem little concerned by the danger.

And then there are the boys to contend with. Assad-Ullah is shy and sweet-tempered, but many are not. Throughout the day, dozens of children kick and punch each other or wrench baskets from one another’s hands. There is one particularly vicious fistfight. The grown men occasionally contribute to the turmoil with a slap or a kick. Everywhere there are groups of small children, some not much older than toddlers, competing for the fruit that falls from the trucks, or rooting through piles of garbage.

Asked about the presence of thousands of children working in the market, Akbar Hayad, administrator of Islamabad Fruit and Vegetable Market, explains, “The Afghans are basically poor people, so they send their children out to work. As for school, there are no such arrangements.” And he adds with a smile, “There is no law to bar them from having so many children. I think this is the only recreation they have—to give birth to children.”

At the end of the workday, Assad-Ullah receives his 40 rupees and begins to search the nearby streets for produce judged too damaged to sell. What is sold here as good produce would shock an American consumer; the damaged goods are truly alarming—blackened, ruptured, wormy fruit and vegetables crawling with flies. The younger children have gotten most of the prizes, but Assad-Ullah manages to find three worm-eaten apples and some badly bruised oranges. His brother, working in the vegetable market, has done better. He has recovered half a dozen tomatoes, some carrots, a potato. The tomatoes are partially blackened with rot and flies swarm over them. The boys carry the produce and their earnings off proudly to their mother. The vegetables will be cleaned and added to a stew; with the money the boys made today, the family will buy flour and rice.

In Peshawar, Adrogal rests on his thin blanket and hopes for a better life. And here in Islamabad, Kudrat-Ullah, the boys’ father, says that many nights he is unable to sleep. He sits up awake, thinking that he could feed his family if he could just get a small piece of land to farm. To regain the life he once led in Afghanistan—that is his goal. At the very least, he’d like to be buried in his homeland. “It is a great shame for us to buried here in Pakistan,” he says.

In the morning a group of men walks slowly along I-11/4’s main road, amid the roaring trucks, the cart drivers whipping their sullen horses, the clouds of diesel exhaust and dust. At the front of the procession is a single man. In his arms he carries a small bundle wrapped in white. A foreigner looks at the group quizzically. “It is a funeral procession,” explains a local. “That is his child that has died.”