Afghan refugees tell U.N.: 'We need peace, land to go home'

Afghan refugee Hukam Khan narrates the situation of his country at Kabobayan refugee camp on Thursday in Peshawar, Pakistan. Khan isn’t sure how old he is, but his beard is long and white, and when he came to Pakistan 40 years ago fleeing an earlier war in Afghanistan his children were small, stuffed onto the backs of donkeys and dragged across rugged mountain peaks to the safety of northwest Pakistan. After 40 years, more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees still live in neighboring Pakistan. They feel abandoned by their own government, increasingly unwelcome in their reluctant host country and ignored by the United Nations.

KABOBAYAN CAMP, Pakistan — Hukam Khan isn’t sure how old he is, but his beard is long and white, and when he came to Pakistan 40 years ago fleeing an earlier war in Afghanistan, his children were small, stuffed onto the backs of donkeys and dragged across rugged mountains to the safety of northwestern Pakistan.

Back then the war was against the former Soviet Union and Khan was among more than 5 million Afghans forced to become refugees in Pakistan, driven from their homes by a bombing campaign so brutal it was referred to as a “scorched earth” policy.

After four decades of war and conflict, more than 1.5 million Afghans still live as refugees in Pakistan, feeling abandoned by their own government, increasingly unwelcome in their reluctant host country and ignored by the United Nations.

Now, for the first time in years, there’s a faint possibility they might eventually return home. The United States and the Taliban appear to have inched closer to a peace deal, agreeing as a first step to a temporary “reduction in violence.”

If that truce should hold, the next step could be a long-sought-after agreement between Washington and the Taliban to end Afghanistan’s current war, now in its 19th year. The agreement would return American troops home and start negotiations between the warring Afghans to bring peace to their shattered country.

Against the backdrop of a possible peace deal, Pakistan is hosting a conference Monday, attended by U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and meant to recognize 40 years of Afghans living as refugees.

“It is a terrible war ... and it needs to be brought to an end,” Khalilzad, who brokered the breakthrough with the Taliban, said at the conference. “We’ve made progress in the sense that we ... are talking about the reduction of violence leading to the signing of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban that will open the door to Afghans sitting across the the table, one side by the government of Afghanistan and on the other by the Taliban of Afghanistan.’’

Also attending the conference is U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, whose job would be to help the Afghans return home.

It won’t be easy.

Many refugees have already tried going back — lured by promises of help and hope from the international community and from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — only to find there was neither food nor shelter for them. Many also discovered they were no longer welcome in the villages they had left decades earlier.

Disillusioned, they returned to Pakistan and to Iran, while tens of thousands of other Afghans paid smugglers and risked their lives to escape to Europe. From there, many were later loaded on planes and returned to war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Grandi called the forced return of refugees from Europe “shameful” in an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday.

“I do ... fervently hope that the countries like Iran and Pakistan, who have hosted so generously ... don’t take their example from much richer countries that are shutting borders, not only to Afghans, but to many other refugees,” he said.

While the specter of a U.S.-Taliban peace deal raises hope that the refugees will eventually return home, Grandi said, “I think this time around, the people who are still left outside will be very cautious in their judgment. They would want to have guarantees that it can be sustainable.”