Afghans fear development of flood-evacuated camps


THEY ALREADY fled their homes once, leaving behind Afghanistan’s war for the safety of Pakistan.

Now thousands of Afghan refugees fear they will have to move on once again as property developers eye their camps, where homes have been reduced to splinters and rubble by Pakistan’s floods.

“No one has been here to help us,” said Abdul Wahab (60), who escaped from Afghanistan 17 years ago and managed to salvage only nine glasses and a kettle from his house when the waters rose through Azakhel camp a month ago. “We will trust in Allah, and if this camp is not rebuilt, we will try to start again.”

Azakhel, just outside the town of Nowshera, was home to about 23,000 of the 1.7 million Afghan refugees who have found a haven in Pakistan through years of fighting. More than 17 million people have been affected by the monsoon rains.

United Nations officials say the Afghans, who now huddle in roadside tents, are among the most vulnerable of the flood victims.

Some 70,000 refugees are estimated to have lost their homes throughout the northwestern region of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Many of the camps were established 20 or 30 years ago in remote areas but today stand at the edge of growing towns and cities, such as Nowshera and Peshawar, making the sites attractive to property speculators.

The waters may have receded but a fresh threat looms. Khassim Diagne, deputy representative of the UN’s refugee agency, said unscrupulous developers had been telling refugees they would not be allowed to return to the land.

“The fear is that developers are moving in, so we have launched an education campaign to make sure that refugees know this is their land and they can’t be forced away,” Mr Diagne said in Islamabad. He added the UN had received assurances from the Pakistani government that anyone affected by the floods would be able to return home, including the Afghan refugees. “This is something that we will be keeping an eye on and pushing along.”

The message is not getting through to the people of Azakhel.

“A man came here and told us that we must move to another camp,” said Lal Zadar, as he stumbled through the wreckage where he had once lived. “But that’s not what we want. We want cash so we can rebuild our lives here, our homes, our shops, our mosques, and have our respect back.”

They all want to return to Afghanistan but fear it is too early to head home. For the time being, they are surviving on donations of food, water and clothing from passing motorists while they wonder what happens next.

There is no shortage of interest in the wrecked camp they used to call home. Riaz Islam, manager of the Abaseen Construction Company, said legitimate builders would be keen to move in once the fate of the camp was decided.

“We are interested to buy the land and construct a housing colony there. But first let’s see what the government is doing,” he said.