Pakistanis Flee Military Crackdown On The Taliban

Thousands of Pakistanis are fleeing to Afghanistan to avoid a military launch against the Taliban. Pakistani soldiers are going door-to-door in the area demanding that Afghan refugees, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for decades, go back to Afghanistan as well. Afghan officials question how many more refugees they can house and feed in the midst of a food shortage.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go now to Afghanistan and the tiny province of Kunar. It sits on the border with Pakistan and is one of the more dangerous places in Afghanistan. Clashes between US Forces and insurgents there are up dramatically, but that hasn't stopped 20,000 refugees from Pakistan from pouring into Kunar recently, fleeing a crackdown on the Taliban in their country. Afghans have welcomed the Pakistani refugees with open arms and homes. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson travel to Kunar and has this story.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Hundreds of Pakistani refugees hoping for a handout gather around Red Cross vehicles that have just arrived at a tribal leader's guest house along the Kunar River. It's one of the few times one sees so many of the refugees in the same place. Most of the time, they are scattered among the remote villages here in Kunar Province where they live as guests in people's homes. But these Pakistani refugees and their Afghan hosts are no strangers to one another. They all belong to the same Pashtun tribe. They only grudgingly recognize the border drawn by the British more than a century ago to divide them. Many, like refugee Sabe Nabi Sayed(ph), are married to an Afghan member of their tribe. Others own land or run businesses here.

Mr. SABE NABI SAYED (Pakistani Refugee): We have the same civilization and culture. We are one nation. So I'm living in Pakistan, but most of my brothers and relatives are living here, and we regard relationship with each other because my parent in law live here. So we cannot be isolated.

NELSON: So the border is a western invention?

Mr. SAYED: Ah, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

NELSON: One tribe or not, Sayed says it's difficult to be here right now. The 28-year-old says he'd rather be back home in Pakistan's Bazhur(ph) area, which is more developed and has better schools for his three children. He says until the Pakistani troops came to oust the Taliban from Bazhur two months ago, it was safer, too. That despite the Taliban enforcing its harsh brand of Islamic law on residents.

Mr. SAYED: Yes, the situation was very critical. You know, most of the buildings were destroyed by the shelling and by the helicopters and we were - our lives were jeopardized and in risk and in danger. So we feel that our family would be destroyed, would be killed, so that's why I fled here.

NELSON: An hour's drive away in the mountainside village of (unintelligible), Afghan farmer Nour Aziz(ph) shares Sayed's mixed feelings.

Mr. NOUR AZIZ (Afghan Farmer): (Pashto spoken)

NELSON: Nour Aziz says that since August, thousands of Pakistani refugees crossing the border three miles from here have passed through (unintelligible). Dozens stayed, invited to leave in residents' mud homes and share their meager harvest. But the farmer says the village can't handle any more refugees. He's worried about Pakistan's plans to evict thousands of Kunar residents who moved there as refugees from their own wars. One of the returning Afghan refugees named Sayed Akmhad(ph) says the eviction was well underway when he left Pakistan on Tuesday.

Mr. SAYED AKMHAD (Afghan Refugee): (Pashto spoken)

NELSON: He says Pakistani soldiers knocked on his and other people's doors in search of Afghans to evict. He says they blamed him and other Afghans for the trouble in Bazhur. They accused the refugees of being Taliban. Kunar Governor Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi is worried too. He said it's the first time his province has had to deal with any refugees, let alone this many. He and others fear as many as 4,000 more families could show up if the fighting continues.

Mr. SAYED FAZLLULAH WAHIDI (Governor, Kunar Province): Kunar is not a very big province. We have no much land in this province and this number of people here in Kunar is - still is too much. If more people is coming, then we should prepare ourself.

NELSON: Making sure insurgents don't hide among the refugees is another problem, says Lieutenant Colonel Bret Jenkinson(ph), who heads the American battalion here in Kunar province. He already has his hands full with militants from both sides of the border.

Lieutenant Colonel BRET JENKINSON (U.S. Commander, American Battalion in Kunar Province): But when war on the far side of the border has forced them across, now, you can't exactly say, hey, you're not going through the Afghan border checkpoints, you're a miscreant. Now, you can't say that - that you have miscreants mixed in with legitimate refugees. So, therein lies the security challenge.

NELSON: So far, Jenkinson says, he's not aware of any attacks related to the influx. The governor says he plans to put refugees into school buildings if their numbers swell to a point where relatives can't take care of them. He says in no case will he allow tent cities for people he considers to be family. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, reporting from Kunar in Eastern Afghanistan.

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