By Kevin Sieff
During the last stretch of his family’s journey home, Esmatullah perched atop a truckload of kitchenware, firewood and furniture, hurtling toward Kabul while the evidence of three decades in exile shifted beneath him.
On either side of the truck, the bazaars grew denser. The buildings became taller and more fortified. American convoys snaked through traffic, heading downtown.
Nearly two days after leaving their home in Pakistan, Esmatullah and his 22 relatives had made it to Afghanistan’s capital, after 30 years as refugees. They looked out at their country. They tried not to panic.
The uncertainty shrouding Afghanistan’s future has prompted thousands of Afghans to seek an escape route — foreign visa applications, asylum pleas, long journeys across the border. But every day, families swim against that current, returning to Afghanistan after years abroad, finding a country that has been transformed by all the development and war wrought by a decade-long U.S. intervention and a persistent insurgency.
Some of the returnees are here by choice — nostalgic for the country of their youth, drawn back by word of renewed security and opportunity. Most, like Esmatullah’s family, have returned involuntarily — compelled by the Pakistani government’s unwillingness to extend their refugee status.
Nearly 3 million Afghans will be expelled from Pakistan by the end of the year if an extension isn’t granted, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Such a mass deportation could further destabilize Afghanistan, straining its economy and challenging its fledgling security forces. Although UNHCR officials are optimistic that the issue will be resolved, manyAfghans in Pakistan have responded to the looming deadline by heading home after years in exile.
Esmatullah’s father, Haji Bismillah, fled Afghanistan in 1979, at the beginning of the Soviet occupation. He was 35 when he left the country on horseback, with a wife and three young children. When he returned this month, he looked brittle, worn by hard decades. With him were his nearly two-dozen sons, daughters and grandchildren, most of whom had never been to Afghanistan.
As the family’s truck sped closer to downtown Kabul, Bismillah marveled at how the city had grown — shops and military bases and government buildings fanning out for miles. “I’m finally home,” he said.
But as Bismillah rejoiced, his sons, who spoke Pashto with thick Pakistani accents, grew worried. They had heard stories about terrorism and a bleak economy.
“I cannot stay here” thought Mohammed Ullah, 19. “I will run away.”