JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- They left Pakistan after years of detention, bribery, and countless other forms of police harassment and government pressure.
Many returning Afghans now, however, face equally bleak prospects within Afghanistan, dashing their hopes for a fresh start in their homeland.
Hamid, who like many Afghans goes by one name only, is among the more than 10,000 Afghans who returned this year.
He said that since his return two months ago life in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad is tougher than the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, where his family had lived since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The two cities are connected by the famed Khyber Pass, where civilians from both countries have been displaced and suffered from various cycles of war and violence over the past four decades.
He sold his business and the small house they had built in Peshawar in the hopes he would be able to start over in Jalalabad. But he has so far been unable to even provide a roof for his family.
“I have been looking for a house ever since I arrived,” he said. “Even small and rundown ones are going for $300 or $400 a month. How can I afford that much?”
Ahmadullah, another returnee, said he was so fed up with Pakistani oppression that he sold his family’s house -- worth $15,000 -- for just $2,000, but he was shocked to see what awaited him in Jalalabad.
“We thought that our Afghan bothers here would help us,” he said. “But most landlords in Jalalabad have already made up their minds to demand much higher rent from helpless returning refugees.”
Realtors in Jalalabad back such complaints. Estate agent Mohammad Rahim said every day scores of new clients, most of whom have recently returned from Pakistan, ask him to help them find affordable housing for rent.
Rahim said most are disappointed when they learn about the demands of landlords.
“Nothing is cheaper than $500. Rents have doubled or even quadrupled,” he said. “Houses we use to rent for $300 are now at least $600. A bigger and better house is more than $1,000.”
Rents are sky-high for a provincial Afghan capital where most annual incomes equal a few thousand dollars.
Rahimullah, who left his home in a refugee camp in Pakistan last month to return to his native Nangarhar Province -- where Jalalabad is the provincial capital -- was deeply disappointed.
He said he wants the government to establish a camp for returnees.
“The realtors mostly talk of rents in the hundreds of dollars, which is way out of our reach,” he said. “We now want the government to establish camps for us. If we can’t have proper houses, we should at least be able to have our own tents.”
Authorities in Nangarhar admitted that returning Afghans are getting a raw deal. Provincial spokesman Ataullah Khogyani said the local government is working with Kabul to provide some assistance.
“We face a lot of problems as a majority of returnees come to Nangarhar, which shares a border with Pakistan,” he said. “We hope to resolve their accommodation problem soon.”
Nearly 7 million Afghans have lived in exile in Pakistan over the various phases of war following the communist military coup in April 1978.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it has helped approximately 3.9 million Afghans to return from Pakistan over the past 14 years. More than 1.5 million registered refugees and an equal number of undocumented Afghans still live in camps and cities across Pakistan.
Islamabad’s treatment of exiled Afghans has swung violently. In the early 1980s, Afghan refugees were welcomed as Islamic holy warriors fighting against the godless communists. Today, they are seen as a major burden and security threats who are often ostracized and oppressed whenever relations between Islamabad and Kabul turn sour.
Aid worker Kate O’Rouke, the Afghanistan director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said thousands of returning Afghan families are in urgent need of assistance.
“These people are falling between the cracks. There’s an urgent need for assistance, or the consequences may be fatal,” she warned.
Will Carter, an NRC adviser, said the returning Afghans are now struggling to survive.
“It is heart-breaking to see the situation some of the families are living under. Children appear visibly malnourished, and families are lacking clean drinking water, shelter, and sanitation facilities,” he said.