Evasive dignity

May 22, 2022

Afghan refugees protest in Islamabad

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uhammad Younas Qarizada, an Afghan refugee, has been sleeping in the open for several weeks. He and his 11 other family members are among the hundreds of Afghan refugees staging a protest in front of the National Press Club. They want the United Nations to evacuate them to some developed country.

Hundreds of these Afghans, belonging to various tribes and groups, had left Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. A majority of the protesters are women, children and the elderly. They say they have been living in the open - on greenbelts, lawns and footpaths around the Press Club.

“After the security situation worsened in our country, we feared for our lives, being a religious minority. I and my family left the country and reached Pakistan via Torkham border hoping that the developed world and the United Nations will help us once we reached Pakistan. However, we have been on our own so far,” he tells The News on Sunday. “We are proud of being Afghan, but we are worried about our rights,” he says. Apparently, no developed country is willing to take them in.

“Initially, we lived in a rented house, then in a small hotel room; now we are on the footpath,” Sadaf Ameeri, says a middle-age woman who is a part of the large refugee group camped next to the Press Clubs. She says her husband was killed by terrorists some years ago. After the Taliban takeover, she moved to Pakistan with seven family members to Pakistan. “We are not safe here. We have a lot of security concerns. We have been here for several weeks. No Pakistani authority or the United Nations representative has reached us yet,” she says.

Many men among the protesters, including the leader of the group, Ahmad Zia Faiz, wear a white qamees each with words “Kill us” written on it. The words are also written on many tents.

“The white qamees and the words described the threats we face. We have no other choice. We cannot go back and cannot see anything ahead for us. We are on a journey but we don’t know where our destination is going to be,” Faiz, the leader of the group, says. “After several months in this situation, we have decided to take to the streets, the harsh weather notwithstanding. If any of us die, we will bury them right there. People are doing this to us in the 21st Century.”

The refugees had started pouring into Islamabad last August. They got organised after losing hope of being evacuated by the United Nations. They say they have been living in the open for weeks, braving the heat wave and that the government has made no arrangements for their security.

The refugee families poured into Islamabad last August. They started getting organised after losing hope of being evacuated by the United Nations. They have been living in the open and no arrangements have been made by the government for their security.

Since August 15, the time of Taliban takeover, around 300,000 Afghan nationals crossed into Pakistan, according to data compiled by Interior Ministry. Only around 11,000 of them had passports. More than half of them either returned or managed to get to other countries. While, according to the available figures, around 115,000 are still in Pakistan as unofficial refugees.

Around two dozens of the protesters have reported sick over the past few days, mostly on account of the heat and unhygienic water and food. They have received treatment at a first-aid clinic set up in one of the tents. “Many of us have fallen sick from extreme heat. We have women and children with us. There is a sense of insecurity. There have been many incidents of harassment,” says Faiz. “The local authorities have asked us to live in houses, but how can we do that. We have run out of money and we have no source of income.”

“This is a kind of protest. We want the world to take note of our suffering. There are at least 10,000 Afghan refugees here, many of living in small houses because of the weather. Many families are living in a single room. They are running out of food and money,” he says.

“Everybody knows the situation in Afghanistan where people have been deprived of their basic rights. The US, Europe and the UN should not ignore us. They too are responsible for these difficult times,” he says. “Many of us are educated. We have the right to a dignified life. We don’t want charity. We want the right to a good life. The world should listen to our voice. The UN and the developed world and human rights defenders should not ignore our pain.”

Faiz says no one wants to leave their homeland unless there is an emergency. “We know once one leaves one’s country, they must start from zero. Leaving Afghanistan was not easy. The threat to our lives compelled us to leave. Suicide attacks and explosions continue in Afghanistan. Everybody knows that the Taliban had been fighting against the United States, the West and the Afghan nation. The world should realise that we are refugees, not beggars. We want a dignified life.”

Thousands of Afghan refugees, including Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks, are now stranded in Pakistan. The Taliban government in Afghanistan has closed down many human rights forums since it seized power. Last week, it announced the dissolution of Afghanistan’s independent human rights commission. Schools for girls have not been opened. Recently, the government extended the wearing of hijab requirement to female UN staff.

However, in an interview, Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani stated they were not forcing women to wear hijab. “We advise them and preach to them from time to time,” he said.

The writer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at vaqargillanigmail.com. He tweets at waqargillani

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