The Daily Hustle: ‘Packing up a life’ in Pakistan and being forcibly returned to Afghanistan 

Nearly a million Afghans, many born and brought up in Pakistan, have ‘returned’ to their country since the start of Pakistan’s latest deportation campaign. On 3 October 2023, the government in Islamabad told undocumented Afghans living in the country to leave voluntarily by the end of that month or risk being forcibly returned. The police in Pakistan, however, began detaining and forcibly returning Afghans well in advance of the deadline, despite calls from Kabul and international organisations such as the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, to stay the deportations during winter or at least slow their pace to avert what many feared was a looming humanitarian catastrophe. AAN’s Ali Mohammad Sabawoon heard from one Afghan who has recently returned to Kabul with his family about the abrupt ending of his life in Pakistan and his experience of return. 
By the time I left my home in Islamabad to return to Afghanistan, I had spent 35 of my 55 years in Pakistan. In 1988, the Soviets had started their withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fight for power between the mujahedin factions had entered a ferocious and more bloody phase. As a young man of 20, I couldn’t see a future for myself there in the rubble and poverty. There were no jobs and my father was struggling to feed our family. As the oldest son, I had to leave home in search of work to send money home and, at the very least, my father would have one less mouth to feed. Over the years, I made a life for myself in Pakistan. I married a girl from my family, we had two sons and then later, we were blessed with three daughters.

At first, I worked as a day labourer and we didn’t have much money, barely making ends meet. But our situation improved when my sons got older and could join me at work. Within two years of my sons contributing to the household, we were able to buy some cows and start breeding them and selling their milk. We invested all the money back into the business. We bought young calves and sold them at a profit when they were grown. We were now financially secure businessmen. We moved to better housing, sent my three daughters to school and, eventually, my two sons got married. Now, we have a happy, prosperous nine-member household. Or at least we did until the Pakistani government started the latest deportation of Afghans.

The right time to leave 

At first, when the Pakistani government first announced the deadline for Afghans to leave, I ignored it. They had made such announcements before, and we had always been able to weather the storm and stay on in Islamabad. We used to have official refugee papers, but I had allowed them to lapse. I don’t know why. I guess I had become too complacent. I tried unsuccessfully to bring our paperwork up-to-date and legalise our status again. We thought we could lie low and let the storm pass. But the police started rounding up Afghans even before the deadline. Even people who were in Pakistan legally were being detained and sent back to Afghanistan. We had a family meeting to talk about what we should do. My wife and I were the only ones in the family who had ever lived in Afghanistan. My children were born in Pakistan and my girls had never been to Afghanistan. My teenage daughters opposed the move because they knew they would not be able to continue their schooling. They’d heard about the Emirate’s restrictions on women and were afraid they would lose all the freedoms they’d had in Pakistan. But the situation seemed impossible, so we decided to start making preparations to return to Afghanistan. It was best to leave on our own terms. We would sell what we could so that we could return with some capital.

Preparing to leave

Packing up a life is not an easy thing to do. We had to decide what we could take, what to sell and what to leave behind or give away. We had to tie up loose ends and say goodbye to friends and family. Mostly, we had to come to terms with leaving our lives and everything we had known. The few weeks before we left took not only a physical toll but also an emotional one.

We took a beating on the sale of our belongings. There are always people to benefit from the misfortune of others. The Pakistani government had a list of things we couldn’t take to Afghanistan. These included livestock and motorcycles. Our two cows were worth 500,000 rupees (USD 1,750) each, but I sold them for 190,000 (USD 650) each. I also had five calves, each worth 90,000 rupees (USD 300); I got only 30,000 (USD 100) for each of them. I sold my motorbike for only 100,000 rupees (USD 345). I had bought it new for 200,000 rupees (USD 690).

Meanwhile, my wife and daughters were busy packing our belongings. When the packing was finally done, I sent my oldest son to the market nearby to arrange for a truck and a driver to take us and our stuff to Afghanistan. The police were out looking to arrest undocumented Afghans and I told him to be careful.

The police arrest my son

We hadn’t heard from my son since he’d left the house early in the morning to find a truck. I kept calling him, but he wasn’t picking up the phone. That evening, we sat in silence, waiting for the phone to ring, my wife’s eyes locked on the front door. The next day, around 9 in the morning, we got a call from a strange number. The person on the other end told me in Urdu that he was a police officer and then gave the phone to my son. He told me he’d been detained and unless we gave the police 25,000 rupees (USD 81), they would issue a First Information Report (FIR) and send him to prison. I quickly agreed to send them money to get him released. But I couldn’t go to the police station myself because, without valid refugee documents, I could be detained as well. So I asked a Pakistani friend to take the money to the police station. After an hour, which felt like an eternity, my son called to say he was on his way home.

We couldn’t risk leaving the house again, so I asked a relative who had a refugee card to help us rent a truck. Luckily, he found an Afghan driver who agreed to take us all the way to Kabul for 182,000 rupees (USD 630).

A final goodbye 

It was already dark when we reached the Torkham crossing. We had to wait until morning for them to open the crossing point. My daughters were anxious and kept asking questions. They wanted to know about life in Afghanistan, what the houses were like, could they find the same products they were used to buying in Pakistan, did they have the same TV programmes and, most importantly, what were they going to do about their education since they could not attend high school in Afghanistan?

Finally, they opened the border and the Pakistani police started searching the vehicles that had queued overnight. They made us take everything off the truck. They threw everything on the ground and when they were finished riffling through our belongings, they left it all on the ground for us to repack. My wife watched quietly, shaking her head as the guards carelessly dumped our bedding and clothes on the dirty ground and signalled my daughters to start shaking the dust and repack things as best they could.

I could hear a boy crying because he’d been told he had to leave his pet chicken behind. The boy clutched the bird to his chest and pleaded with the guards. The father quietly spoke to the guards and asked them to make an exception. Finally, they said they’d let the boy take his chicken if the father gave them 3,000 rupees (USD 10). I could see the father’s ashen face as he explained to his son that they couldn’t afford to pay and had to give the chicken to the guards. The boy hugged the bird one last time and then handed it over. He kept looking back as long as he could, a river of tears streaming down his cheeks, until they were past the checkpoint and he could no longer see his beloved pet.

When we reached the checkpoint, we stopped and looked back at the country that had been our home all these years. In our hearts, we thanked Pakistan for affording us a good life. Then, we turned around and started taking our first steps toward our new life.

Back home to Afghanistan 

Luckily, the border was not too busy when we crossed, but we had to spend another two nights on the Afghan side to get our returnee documents and the money the Emirate gives returnees to help them get started, 15,000 Afs (USD 215) per family. I heard that families that arrived two weeks later had to wait up to 11 days to get their documents and money.

When we reached Kabul, there was a clamour of excitement in the truck. The girls were marvelling at the modern buildings in the city, the broad clean avenues. They pointed to shop windows and giggled to each other. It was the first time I’d seen a glint of excitement in my girls’ eyes since we’d decided to leave Islamabad. The mood had lightened and I didn’t want to darken their delight with my own anxieties about the future, so I joined in the merriment too.

One of my relatives had an empty house in Kabul’s Tarakhel township. Weeks earlier, he’d called me. He’d heard we were leaving Pakistan and told me we could live in the house rent-free for as long as we needed to get on our feet. It was a very lucky break that many people don’t have, but over the years, I’d hosted this man and his family in Islamabad several times and he told me it was his turn to host us.

We’ve been in Kabul for a month now. The days are taken up by setting up the house and settling into life. I take the girls out to explore the city. It gives me joy to see them excited about the possibilities Kabul has to offer. For now, we have enough money to survive the winter, but I have to get work and a way to find a living for my family. I’ve been asking around for work since we arrived, but jobs are ‘as rare as bird’s milk’ (an Afghan saying, az sher-e morq ta jon-e adamizad, ‘from bird’s milk to human life’ refers to a precious rarity). I don’t think I’ll find a job before spring, but I hope to rent some land and start a cattle business when the weather gets better. We have to start small, but I’m sure we can make a go of things.

It’s not easy to start a life, especially at my age. I didn’t think I’d have to start all over again, but I’m an Afghan. I know from experience that life is full of unexpected twists and turns. I have faith in God and, inshallah, things will go well.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour 


The Daily Hustle: ‘Packing up a life’ in Pakistan and being forcibly returned to Afghanistan