February 19, 2010 / 1:25 PM / 7 years ago

Peace, poverty await Afghan refugees in Tajikistan

<p>Abdul Mutalib (R), an Afghan refugee in Tajikistan, stands next to his family in an apartment in the Tajik town of Vakhdat, some 200 km (125 miles) north of the Afghan border, January 20, 2010.Nozim Kalandarov</p>

VAKHDAT, Tajikistan (Reuters) - Abdul Mutalib is one of thousands of refugees who have fled across northern Afghanistan's mountains and dusty plains into Tajikistan to start a new life.

He decided to leave last year after his two Russian-educated brothers and their father, who worked on Soviet construction projects, were killed by the Taliban because of their links to the country that occupied Afghanistan for 10 years.

His family are ethnic Tajiks who lived in Afghanistan for generations.

"I don't have any relatives left in Afghanistan any more. Everyone's dead," said Mutalib who, like his brothers, attended a Soviet university.

"The Taliban don't spare anyone with Soviet education."

Pakistan has traditionally been the main destination for those fleeing war and persecution in Afghanistan but recent instability in border areas has prompted many to seek shelter elsewhere.

A major offensive this month by NATO and Afghan troops has stepped up fighting in southern Afghanistan, but in the north a resurgent Taliban has increased attacks in areas traditionally populated by Tajiks, boosting the exodus across the border.

However, life in Tajikistan, although fairly stable and calm compared with Afghanistan, is not easy for the refugees.

Itself struggling to overcome the consequences of a civil war in which 100,000 people were killed 10 years ago, Tajikistan is the poorest state in the Soviet bloc and is ill equipped to accommodate the influx.

The International Crisis Group think tank has described it as a country on the road to becoming a failed state.

Its infrastructure is falling apart, Soviet-era hospitals and schools are crumbling and economic growth more than halved in 2009 to 3.4 percent from 7.9 percent in 2008.

AIMING TO PLEASE WEST

Yet it is the only ex-Soviet Central Asian country to officially admit Afghan refugees, partly aimed at pleasing the West by demonstrating its resolve to cooperate over Afghanistan.

Official data have yet to be released but the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the number of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan is expected to have doubled last year to 5,000.

This year the number is expected to grow to up to 7,000.

"We are finding it harder every month to meet all the needs of our burgeoning Afghan refugee and asylum seeker population," said Ilija Todorovic, the head of the UNHCR office in Tajikistan.

<p>Abdul Mutalib (2nd R), an Afghan refugee in Tajikistan, sits with his family in their apartment in the Tajik town of Vakhdat, some 200 km (125 miles) north of the Afghan border, January 20, 2010.Nozim Kalandarov</p>

Like Mutalib, most refugees are ethnic Tajiks or those who once studied in the former Soviet Union. Some are Hazaras, an ethnic minority group often threatened by the Taliban.

Foreign Minister Khamrokhon Zarifi said last month Tajikistan was committed to accepting the refugees "because they are our brothers."

"It is in our interests that stability returns to Afghanistan because without stability there we cannot talk about stability in the whole region."

Some Tajiks, however, view Afghan refugees with suspicion, seeing them as unwelcome competitors for the scarce jobs available, forcing them to keep a low profile in the country of 7 million people.

Unable to find jobs, 1 million Tajiks now work abroad, mainly as construction workers, to feed their families.

Many, registered in remote settlements with no employment prospects, flock to the capital Dushanbe in search of jobs, only to face harassment by the police.

SOVIET EDUCATION

The Taliban still harbor hostility toward the Soviet forces that occupied Afghanistan for a decade before insurgents drove them out in 1989.

During that period, many like Mutalib received an education in the former Soviet Union, making them traitors in the Taliban's eyes.

Just 200 km (125 miles) north of the Afghan border, Mutalib, 38, now lives with his wife and children in a crumbling Soviet-era apartment block in the Tajik city of Vakhdat.

His face alternates between anger and sorrow as he recalls the events of 2008 when militants killed his father who once worked at Russian construction sites in Kandahar.

"They used to threaten my brothers and father. They wanted our land," he said, reclining on the floor of his grimy flat, its patchy walls undecorated.

Insurgents shot dead two of Mutalib's Russian-educated brothers in 2009 and confiscated their ancestral house in Kandahar -- the tipping point in his decision to flee.

"They (militants) told them: 'Go away'. ... But my father grew up in that house. His grandfather had built that house. He did not want to leave that house. He said: 'This is my home'."

Sitting nearby, Mutalib's wife nods, clutching a baby, their fifth child. A plastic sheet flutters on a window, doing little to keep the cold out of their crowded one-room flat.

Like many Afghans, Mutalib is still unemployed. Despite the hardship, he says life in peace is worth it.

His family agrees. "Over there it is just war," said Masood, one of his sons who attends a local school. "Things can't possibly get worse."

Writing by Maria Golovnina; editing by Andrew Dobbie

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