Longing for Afghanistan

Emigrants: Thousands who fled to Pakistan want to go home - to defend their soil or to build a new, open society after the Taliban.

Terrorism Strikes America

The World

October 02, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - They call the slums on the eastern edge of this desert city "Little Afghanistan." But there is nothing little about it. The neighborhood of Afghan transplants sprawls for miles, block after block of crumbling buildings and streets jammed with apple sellers, beggars and donkey carts.

And in many ways it doesn't resemble Afghanistan either, at least not today's Taliban-run Afghanistan. Here, there are children playing with kites, men shaving their beards, families watching television or listening to music, and women attending school - activities forbidden under the militant Islamic regime.

But these streets remain unmistakably Afghan, reflecting the diversity of the land they fled. The Afghans who call these neighborhoods home are Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Ethnically, they are Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara - the descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongol troops - to name a few.

They are a human bazaar of cultures and languages with one thing in common: They all left their homeland and dream one day of returning - some as fighters to defend it against possible U.S. attack, others as builders of a new, open government if the Taliban government falls.

"It is a relaxing environment in Pakistan, but I don't want to stay here," says Zergahi Tajik, 40, a former banker who left Kabul in 1991 when the Afghan capital was torn by factional violence. Chaos ensued in 1989, after the war with the Soviet Union, as rival commanders fought for power.

"We didn't come here so we would be allowed to shave or watch television or so we could enjoy ourselves," he says. "Our ability to enjoy life is dead now. We came here just to survive."

Tajik and his uncle, Nake Mohammad, run a small flower and wedding decoration shop in Taro Choak, one of five established Afghan neighborhoods in Quetta.

Separate from the refugee camps outside Quetta where tens of thousand of refugees live in tents or mud-brick homes and depend on food aid, Taro Choak is a bustling center for Afghans who have put down roots in the community.

Twenty years of war, drought and, now, political oppression under the Taliban in Afghanistan have caused the Afghan population to swell into the hundreds of thousands in Quetta. Fears of a U.S.-led military strike against the Taliban government have not stirred Tajik and Mohammad to answer a call to arms like some of their neighbors.

"They say they are going to fight. I say, `No, thank you,'" Mohammad says. "If you find a good leader who can bring all our people together, then we would go and fight. I would even give them my head if that would bring a sincere leader to Afghanistan."

For the Taliban government, they have nothing but contempt.

"The Taliban don't work for the people of Afghanistan," says Tajik. "They don't work for the stability of the economy. They don't build schools."

Tajik has three brothers in Kabul. They are engineers who once had government jobs but now make a living selling vegetables on the street, where they earn less than $10 per month. Recently, a member of the Taliban government caught one of them with a music cassette. As punishment, authorities cut off power to his home for six months.

"Someday soon, a husband will need permission to sleep with his wife," Tajik says. "That is not Islam."

Tajik says he was reminded of the harshness of Taliban rule when 35 friends and family members arrived at his home last week after fleeing Afghanistan in fear of a U.S. attack. He turned on his television for his guests and realized that it was the first time some of the younger relatives had seen one.

"It was amazing. They looked at the television with such innocent faces, asking, `Is this a picture talking?'" he recalls.

But others in Little Afghanistan still believe in the Taliban, who won many admirers when they first came to power because they had stopped the fighting and crime that had traumatized the country. The Taliban were once students who rose out of the religious schools in Quetta and other parts of Pakistan.

"I like the Taliban because they made peace in Afghanistan. All of the robbers who used to snatch money and clothes have now vanished," says Sader Mohammad, a 35-year-old tailor who relaxed on a pile of used clothes with other businessmen in Little Afghanistan's main marketplace.

Most of them are involved in cross-border trading and make regular trips back to Afghanistan. When they go, they make sure their beards are full to comply with Taliban law.

None of them has much desire to return to Afghanistan now. They say there is little to go back for. As one put it: "All the things are destroyed. There are no houses, not even shade."

But they were galvanized by talk of an attack by a foreign power. The half-dozen men pledged their lives to defend Afghanistan against the United States, echoing a common refrain heard among Islamic Party members in Pakistan and across the border among the Taliban.

"It will be luck if I am killed in a war," says one 21-year-old. "I will be a martyr."

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