I met Ahmad earlier this month on the meandering path that leads to the settlement of Afghan refugees on the outskirts of Lahore. He had so many smudges on his face it was hard to make out his features, but from what I could see he didn't look a day older than five. I wondered aloud if he would take me to his home. He stared at me intently but didn't respond, concentrating instead on chewing his fingers. I repeated my request a little louder. Without answering, he started hopping down the path, and I followed. His tattered denim jacket hung well below his knees, the sleeves were too long, and his trousers only came down to his knees.
As we neared the first gathering of tents, the smell of dried excrement and rotting bananas hit me hard. Ahmad had suddenly disappeared, leaving me to navigate through groups of running children and buckets of wet clothes until I finally reached the doorway of a tent, where I screamed out a "hello". Pakistan has a tortuous history with refugees from Afghanistan. It started during the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which sent at least three million Afghans across Pakistan's borders. The Afghan civil war that followed caused even more people to flee. Since then, Pakistan has, according to its government, spent $150 billion providing food and shelter to the refugees.
Most Afghans in Pakistan live in tent settlements like this one. Some dwell in larger refugee camps that were initially set up as temporary homes but became permanent as the years passed. Currently, the largest camp in the Punjab is the Kalabah camp, located near Mianwali, which hosts about 20,000 Afghans. Pakistan seems eager to push the Afghans back home. Recently, the Pakistani government set an April 15, 2009 deadline for the repatriation of all refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) requested that the host government be generous until Afghanistan stabilises a bit more. According to Riaz Chuadhary, who represents the Pakistani government on the issue of Afghan refugees, the deadline may now be extended to 2012. But last year, to prove its seriousness, Pakistan demolished what was, at the time, its largest settlement, Jalozai, which held as many as 70,000 refugees (and their jury-rigged school, and shops), citing the possibility that many of the camps harbour Taliban radicals and sympathisers.
Ahmad's mother, who I finally managed to track down after asking a dozen strangers where he lived, laughed at this accusation. "We are all poor here," she said. "We came here because we wanted to escape the fighting between the Talibans and the Americans. We don't support anybody: we just support peace." Ahmad's family - his parents, four siblings and a widowed aunt who arrived in Pakistan "about a year after the Americans attacked". His mother, Safiya Khan, looks like she is in her 40s (she tells me she is too illiterate to remember dates and ages), and the skin on her fingers is peeling off. She wears an aubergine-coloured chaddor that looks like it was probably rose-pink at some point.
Inside, the tent looks much better than the grimy outside. Dishes are neatly stacked in one corner, bedding is rolled up in another. In the middle, Safiya's youngest children play with each other. Safiya busies herself with the stove just outside. "See, I'm cooking vegetables that one of our relatives grows nearby," she said. "We can only afford to cook vegetables. What harm are we doing to Pakistan by eating vegetables? Why do they have to get after our lives?"
Safiya introduces me to her 25-year old son Shaheed, who refuses to make eye-contact with me and persistently stares at the floor while Safiya fills me in on his life. Shaheed arrived in Lahore in 2002, and has since found work as a security guard at a house in the city. He works the night-shift and makes double the money he was earning back home. Last year he married a girl from the camp. Three months ago, she bore him a son. "The poor boy was born here," said Safiya, her voice breaking slightly. "He doesn't know any other place as home."
The spokesman at the Afghan Commissionerate office, a department set up to deal with refugee issues, tells me there is no other option - the refugees must go back. "The orders from our government are very strict," he said, though he confirmed there was a distinct possibility the deadline may be extended. The UNHCR has been working on a repatriation programme since March 2002. Since then, over 320,000 Afghan refugees have been returned to their country. The UN provides each person with a transportation allowance of $20 upon their arrival in Afghanistan.
But according to an NGO worker who has been visiting Afghan refugee camps for years, the transportation allowance is being abused. "We have seen so many cases of Afghan refugees who - simply to obtain the transportation allowance - agree to head back. And then once they have the money, the slip back into Pakistan and back to their camps." When I asked Safiya about such abuse, she smiled and refused to say anything.
After seeing me chat with his mother for a while, Ahmad became more comfortable with my presence. He even agreed to sit with me and drink a cup of tea, which he sipped noisily. I asked him which country he belonged to. "Pakiishtan," he said with a barely perceptible grin, and ran from the tent.
Ayesha Akram is a senior executive producer at Express News, a TV channel in Pakistan.