KACHAGARI, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan has reopened camps originally set up in the 1980s for Afghans who fled the Soviet occupation to provide shelter for those made homeless by offensives against Islamist militants on its northwest border.
“I never thought I would become a refugee in my own country. Never ever,” Ghulam Ahmed told Reuters at Kachagari camp on the outskirts of the city of Peshawar.
Grey-bearded, illiterate, with no idea of his age, Ahmed said he could only hope it was a bad dream as he sat atop a pile of blankets grabbed from relief workers for his family of eight.
A few years back, authorities began dismantling camps in and around Peshawar in a bid to persuade the Afghans to go home.
Peshawar had been a focal point for Muslim volunteers for the guerrilla war, covertly funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia, to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.
But the refugee camps later served as breeding grounds for Islamist militants who joined the Taliban and other groups to keep the cycle of violence spinning in Afghanistan. But in recent years the conflict zone has spread to Pakistan’s tribal lands.
Kachagari, near the Khyber tribal region, was closed for Afghan refugees last year.
Bulldozers destroyed the mud-walled homes the Afghans had built to replace the original tents.
Today in Kachagari, more than 1,700 tents, each meant for a family of six, have been pitched in the dusty earth among the ruins of the deserted Afghan homes.
The camp was only reopened on September 28 and it now hosts more than 11,000 people, mostly from the Bajaur tribal region where a military offensive began in August to clear out Taliban, al Qaeda and other militant groups.
The military says more than 1,500 militants have been killed while 73 soldiers have also died in fighting in Bajaur since August, though no independent verification of casualties is available.
Unlike past offensives, the military has relied heavily on air power to push back the Islamist guerrillas.
At the entrance of Kachagari, two hospitals built with Saudi aid for Afghan refugees have been converted to offices for the camp management.
Scores of tribesmen jostled for food, blankets, tents and cooking oil supplied by U.N. and other aid agencies.
“I had my own grocery shop in Bajaur. I had some agricultural land. I was not that poor,” Ahmed said.
Security guards brandished batons to restore order among the desperate men.
Nearby, dirty-faced children, some without any trousers, played in the dust, oblivious of what was happening around.
“This is now our fate. It happens here daily,” said 25-year-old Aslam Khan, as he watched the miserable scene.
The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, is providing non-food items such as tents, blankets, sleeping mattresses and kitchen kits. It also provided funds for leveling the ground to set up the camp.
UNICEF has set up latrines, provided drinking water, and opened makeshift schools.
Kilian Kleinschmidt, Assistant Representative of the UNHCR, said U.N. aid agencies launched an appeal for $54 million under their Humanitarian Response Plan in September to help these displaced people.
He said only around half the amount had been received.
However, he said, they planned to revise the appeal in view of the growing numbers of people fleeing the conflict zones.
Klienschmidt said nearly 35,000 displaced people had been registered in two camps in Kachagari and seven other camps elsewhere in the northwest.
“By mid-December, we expect up to 70,000 people will be in these camps,” he added.
Jalozai, one of the oldest camps east of Peshawar, was closed this year. It will be reopened on Tuesday, Klienschmidt said.
Besides Bajaur, security forces are battling militants in nearby Swat Valley.
Pakistani officials anticipate that a crackdown will be launched next in Mohmand tribal region neighboring Bajaur.
Social scientists say the longer people stay in these camps, the greater the risk becomes that jobless young men will turn to crime and militancy.
“Many of these people are poor. The first and foremost thing for them is to survive and because of this they are more prone to get into militancy,” said Johar Ali, a professor of sociology at the University of Peshawar.
One American aid worker and his driver were gunned down and an Iranian diplomat was kidnapped and his guard was killed in Peshawar this month. Afghanistan’s ambassador-designate was kidnapped from the city in September.
Kleinschmidt said security in these camps was a major concern for aid agencies.
“We need to ensure that the camps remain safe and the people there understand that it’s not acceptable that ... they involve in any (other) activities.”
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Bill Tarrant