BADABER, PAKISTAN — Badaber, Pakistan. -- Zabhullah Bitab doesn't remember much of life before his family came 13 years ago to this dusty, sprawling refugee camp in northwestern Pakistan.
Still, the energetic 15-year-old says he would like to go back across the arid mountains to his native Afghanistan to pursue his goal of becoming a doctor. Or an architect.
"We want to work," he says of the Badaber refugees. "I'd like to become a doctor, but we haven't the money for this. . . . I want to go to school. I want to live in the city."
Zabhullah's family, however, like the estimated three million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan -- mostly in and around Peshawar -- probably will not go back any time soon, if at all.
Technically, the war in Afghanistan is over. U.S. military aid, which included weapons from artillery to shoulder-launched Stinger missiles, provided to the Afghan resistance fighters known as mujahedeen officially stopped Jan. 1, as did the flow of Russian arms to the Najibullah government in Kabul.
Remaining are more than six million displaced Afghans -- by far the largest refugee population in the world -- who are being held hostage by a complicated set of political and economic conditions created by more than 12 years of war.
They are, in essence, exiles either unable or unwilling to go home, according to interviews with refugees, Peshawar merchants, government officials, relief workers and political experts.
"It's a difficult place to go back to -- there's nothing to go back to," concedes one Bush administration official, who nonetheless insists the "great bulk" of the refugees eventually will return.
The United States, having fueled the war to the tune of billions of dollars in weapons and humanitarian aid for the mujahedeen, has contributed another $1.2 billion in refugee relief and recently began channeling millions of dollars to the United Nations appeal for Afghan repatriation.
Still, the obstacles for refugees to return are myriad. They are loath to return to rule by the same leftist regime Islamic forces have been trying to topple since 1979. There is warring among the seven mujahedeen factions. And there are 20 million mines, by U.S. estimates, still embedded in the country.
The exiles, simply put, "are stuck," says Shahab Zaman, the refugee liaison officer for Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, home to at least 2.2 million people in 258 camps. "It's not that they do not want to go back," Mr. Zaman says. "There are genuine reasons."
As Mohammed Naeem Khan, the province's refugee protocol officer, says: "A bullet from a Soviet gun or an Afghan gun will kill you the same way."
Afghanistan has been decimated by the war. More than two-thirds of the infrastructure including agriculture, housing and roads was destroyed, 1.5 million people were killed, and a third of the population fled. Yet some refugees like Zabhullah still hope to cross the border and find one, clear shot at a better life.
"It's very hard," he says of Badaber.
Zabhullah's uncle supports the extended family -- he and eight others live in a small, mud house while nearby dwellings house his grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins -- with proceeds from a small variety store set up along a pell-mell commercial strip in the camp.
"We haven't money; we haven't salary," Zabhullah says, explaining that his father has worked for one of the Afghan resistance groups without pay for a year.
Zabhullah says his family would return if Dr. Najibullah is overthrown and Afghanistan is made "free." But until then, they have little reason to give up a stable, if limited and difficult, existence for a highly precarious situation.
Other Afghans, like the shopkeepers who sell everything from cauliflower to black U.S. Army boots in the tiny, crowded stalls that line Peshawar's streets, are hesitant to give up the livelihoods they have carved out in Pakistan for a nomadic existence in the scrubby hillsides back home.
"If you go back to Afghanistan, the government press-gangs you into the army," said one shopkeeper. Asked why he would not join one of the seven resistance factions to avoid that fate, he replied, "If I did that, I'd be living out on the plains. There's no telling where the next meal comes from.
"We're here because our brothers are fighting," he said. "Somebody has to look after the children and the wives."
One shopkeeper, a member of the Shinwari tribe who travels to Kabul twice a month to get the ice-cream makers, televisions and other goods he sells in Peshawar's smugglers' market, says some mujahedeen have turned into mountain bandits, posing threats of robbery and extortion to those who would cross the border.
Indeed, Peshawar is rife with stories of Afghans who have been robbed en route to Kabul for business or to bring money to the families they left behind for work in Pakistan.