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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghanistan a Meager Refuge for Some Tajiks

SAKHI CAMP, Afghanistan -- Sakhi Camp lies on a desolate, treeless and windswept plain in northern Afghanistan. When the wind blows, gritty sand whips through the refugee village of mud-brick houses which has huddled here for the past four years.

This desert plain east of Mazar-i-Sharif, the main city of northern Afghanistan, should not be inhabited at all. More than 1,000 refugee families from Tajikistan live here in Sakhi Camp, unwilling to return to the republic from which they were driven during the Tajik civil war of 1992.

Most of the estimated 80,000 or more refugees who fled Tajikistan at the time have since returned, many with help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR. Some 22,000 remain in Afghanistan however -- 7,300 in Sakhi Camp and an estimated 15,000 in camps in Kunduz and Takhar provinces further east.

The Tajik refugees are distinguishable from the native Tajik people of northern Afghanistan by their worn Soviet-style clothes. On the single road that passes by Sakhi Camp, a score of them can usually be seen supplementing their meager livings by filling in potholes in exchange for a few scraps of money flung to them by passing motorists.

The UNHCR, which runs Sakhi Camp, has more pressing refugee problems on its hands and wants all the Tajik refugees to go home. Sakhi Camp has already shrunk to its present size from a population of 26,000 people two years ago and 40,000 at the height of the crisis.

But most of the remaining refugees have no intention of leaving soon, and repatriation has shrunk to a dribble.

"There is no work, no money and no guarantee of security in Tajikistan," says Khairullo Muzafar, originally from the 50 Years USSR Kolkhoz in Kabodion and now head of Sakhi Camp's refugee committee. "I went back to Tajikistan in 1993. There are no houses there. They were all burnt."

Despite such reservations, the UNHCR considers it safe for the refugees to go back, says Cesar Dubon, head of the regional UNHCR office in Mazar-i-Sharif. While a few men who actively fought against the current government during the civil war might face revenge attacks if they returned, few were such opposition leaders, says Dubon.

The refugees remain a political problem because Tajikistan's armed opposition, still occasionally fighting the Dushanbe government, has bases in northern Afghanistan and recruits fighters among the refugees there.

Dubon says part of the reason these refugees remain is that they are discouraged from leaving by political leaders of the Tajik opposition in Afghanistan, who realize that if all the refugees go they will lose both their recruiting base and the main justification for their continued struggle against Dushanbe.

Registered refugees receive basic food rations, but, faced with declining sponsorship for Tajik refugees, the UNHCR is encouraging those who insist on staying to become self-supporting. Five wells have been drilled to irrigate new vegetable gardens for the camp, and training in various small businesses is being provided.

UNHCR officials emphasize that no political or military activity is permitted in Sakhi Camp. But the UNHCR has no jurisdiction over the other Tajik camps, the largest of which is near Kunduz, while smaller ones are located near Taloqan, in Takhar province, where Said Abdullo Nuri, leader of the Tajikistan opposition in Afghanistan, has his base.

One 38-year-old man in Sakhi Camp, identifying himself only as Mokhamed, said he would not return to Tajikistan until Nuri decided it was time. "My family is there and I haven't seen them in four years," he said. "I took part in the war, so I can't go back. Half my relatives are fighting there in Garm and elsewhere."

The Garm valley in central Tajikistan has been a stronghold of the opposition since the war.

Mokhamed now lives in a tiny one-room house of sun-dried bricks that he built himself. He receives occasional letters from his wife and five children in Tajikistan, but he has married again in Afghanistan and is expecting a second baby from his second wife soon.

"My wife there knows," he said, slightly embarrassed, "but you know, you can't live here without a woman."

Despite the difficulties, many refugees simply think they live better in Afghanistan than they would in Tajikistan, whose economy has been shattered by the collapse of the Soviet economy and by continuing political unrest.

A five-man delegation from Sakhi Camp returned recently from a visit to Tajikistan, where the UNHCR sent them to report on conditions for returned refugees. One delegation member, Abdullo Nadzhimuddinov, emphasized the lack of work in southern Tajikistan.

"I saw how they have destroyed all our houses," he said. "It's our homeland. We have to return one day. We have no other path. But now is not the time."

The refugees still have painful memories of their departure from Tajikistan, driven from their homes by those who now rule in Dushanbe. They tell how thousands died from drowning or enemy shooting when they were forced to cross the Oxus River -- the Amu Darya -- into Afghanistan, just as many of their forefathers had fled to Afghanistan to escape the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War in the 1920s.

Arriving in the middle of winter, many more died of hunger, cold and exhaustion. Some 1,800 graves, many those of children, crowd a walled cemetery on the edge of Sakhi Camp, next to the newly-plowed future vegetable gardens. One stone is marked simply "Khorkash, 1900-93" in both Arabic and Cyrillic script.

"He was an old man," said Usman, a young man who now lives in Sakhi. "I knew him. He was my neighbor there."