PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- A group of veiled Pakistani women protest in their country’s northwestern city of Peshawar.
They say they are the latest victims of what they see as Islamabad’s flawed approach to neighboring Afghanistan.
The mostly burqa-clad women, accompanied by children or carrying infants, want Islamabad to bring back their husbands who were deported to Afghanistan as part of a Pakistani crackdown on Afghan refugees this year.
The dozen protesters in Peshawar are among hundreds of Pakistani women who married Afghan men over the past four decades, when millions of Afghan refugees lived in the country.
The refugees fled the various cycles of war in Afghanistan, beginning with the April 1978 communist coup and quickly followed by the December 1979 Soviet invasion of their country.
Shamim, now in her 40s, married her Afghan husband, Bahadur, in her native Peshawar nearly two decades ago. They have eight children together. But their family was ripped apart recently when Pakistani authorities deported Bahadur to his native Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan, across the historic Khyber Pass.
“We are in an impossible situation. My husband and some of our elder children are in Afghanistan, but I stay behind here with the younger ones in a rented house,” she told Radio Mashaal. “It is difficult to survive without a husband. It is daunting for my children, who miss their father.”
Shamim, who like her husband and many in Afghanistan and Pakistan goes by one name only, says Islamabad needs to consider granting citizenship to Afghan men and women married to Pakistanis.
“In most countries today, it is possible to legally gain citizenship, but that is still not the case in Pakistan,” she said. “I want to appeal to [Pakistani Prime Minister] Nawaz Sharif and [army chief] Raheel Sharif to help us.”
Tayyaba, a fifth grader, says she and her five sibling miss their Afghan father, who was deported eight months ago.
“Please bring my father back. We are really miserable without him. We cannot pay our school fees or utility bills,” she said. “Even paying for food and essentials is getting harder.”
Her mother, Nasima, feels Pakistan has let them down. She wants Islamabad to learn a lesson from Sharbat Gula. On November 9, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the 44-year-old mother at the presidential palace after she was deported from Pakistan.
A young Gula featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine in the 1980s. He piercing green eyes showcased the suffering of her nation.
Gula’s arrest by Pakistani authorities late last month on charges of forging identity documents roiled Afghans, who viewed her treatment as an insult and part of Islamabad’s message that it still retains considerable influence over the fate of Afghans.
“Sharbat Gula was accorded a warm welcome and respect by the rulers of Afghanistan, but what is this country [Pakistan] doing to us?” Nasima said. “We see no way forward here.”
In one of the largest displacement crises in recent history, an estimated 7 million Afghans have lived in exile in Pakistan since 1978. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 4 million registered Afghans have repatriated since 2002.
UNHCR says nearly 380,000 Afghans have returned to their country from Pakistan since the beginning of this year. Their return hastened after the government launched a crackdown against Afghan refugees in July.
Nearly 2 million Afghan refugees still remain in cities and camps across Pakistan. Nearly 1.2 million of them are registered while the rest are undocumented.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Zaland Yousafzai’s reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.