Jawad is a teacher, a slight young man, 22 years old, with the high cheekbones and somewhat slanting eyes of the Hazara people. After fourteen years of exile, he returned to Afghanistan two months ago. He thus joined over a million Afghan returnees since February, most of them from camps, villages and cities in Pakistan, and a smaller number from refugee camps in Iran. Jawad has experience of both.
Jawads father was a farmer in a remote district of the Bamiyan province, largely Hazara territory in the centre of Afghanistan. They grew wheat and kept animals. The snows come early to Bamiyan; it is too cold in winter for fruit trees to survive.
We were driven away in 1988, by the fighting with the Soviets. My parents took nine of their children with them, leaving two married daughters behind. The first part of the journey was on foot, as there were no roads. We crossed into Pakistan and when we got there we heard that Ayatollah Khomeini had died. My father wasnt sure what to do.
One of my brothers was eager to go to Iran, where we had heard they were welcoming refugees from Afghanistan. He went ahead to check the situation, and found work in a factory producing sugar loaves. We joined him and lived in a single room for a while, all of us, but soon four of my older brothers also went to work in the factory. For a while I did nothing, as the Iranians did not allow us to go to school, but eventually I was taken into a religious school in Qom.
Life in limbo
When Jawad was 14 years old, he was picked up by the religious police and taken to a prison. The policy towards Afghan refugees had changed and it had become common for young men to be arrested and deported. With his Mongol features, Jawad stood out from local Iranians.
There were two notorious camps where the Hazaras were kept before deportation, with about a thousand young men in each. My parents tried to help me by sending a neighbour to purchase my release, but after nearly two months I was taken to the border one night and sent into Afghanistan. I made my way to Herat and then to Kandahar. The Taliban were in charge. You could see them in the streets with their long turbans, and they had scissors to cut peoples hair if it was too long. They stopped men all the time and forced them to pray. I felt very bitter. I had not had an easy time in Iran, and now it was just as bad.
Jawad made his way back to Bamiyan in search of his sisters. He found that he could not recognise anyone in the village and had to ask his way to their home. When they understood who he was, they cried. His plan now was to make his way back to Iran, to his parents, via Pakistan. He succeeded, but was again picked up and expelled. This time, he decided to stay in Peshawar, in Pakistan.
Quite soon I was chosen to study in a religious school, a madrasa, funded by an Iranian Ayatollah. The lessons were mostly religious, but there was a little English and maths. For the next five years I lived in the school and studied. Then I heard that my father had had a stroke and was paralysed, and I smuggled myself home to see him. I stayed a month, then went back to Peshawar.
Pressures within the school had been building up, with the students demanding more relevant, modern teaching. They asked for computers. After a prolonged dispute, the teachers agreed and computers were installed. But after three weeks the boys found that the room with the computers had been placed out of bounds. In the confrontations that followed Jawad was one of eighteen students to be expelled.
I went to Karachi and decided to train to be a tailor, sewing leather jackets. In the evenings I became involved with a dissident group of Hazaras, and distributed political pamphlets. This brought me into contact with a community school run by and for the Hazaras. In return for teaching the children, I was given lessons in English and politics. When the Taliban were defeated, I was asked to go to Kabul and prepare the way for the school to transfer over the border in June.
A caravan of learning
It was May. Refugees were beginning to pour back across the border into Afghanistan, partly lured by the promise of peace and the chance to rebuild their country, partly propelled by Pakistani eagerness to be rid of them. His parents were still in Iran, but he hoped soon to draw them back to their village in Bamiyan.
Jawad found Kabul in ruins, with very little electricity and light. He went to the traditionally Hazara quarter, beyond the university on the west of the city, where shelling during the civil war had left most of the houses destroyed. With another young teacher, he found a deserted building, with half a dozen almost derelict rooms.
In June, the entire community school, complete with its few lesson books, its staff of young teachers, its 500 pupils and their families, made the journey home. They travelled in lorries and buses piled high with all the belongings gathered in the long years of exile. While the school began its classes, working three shifts every day to cope with the ever growing numbers of pupils, the families moved back into their old districts, reconstructing their former homes or trying to evict squatters now occupying them. Children whose families endured the 23 years of civil war including girls kept illiterate by Taliban restrictions flocked to join.
Jawad himself never planned to be a teacher. He is fond of the children, but has set his mind on a university education, and (when the electricity lasts) he works far into the night to prepare for exams in September. He sleeps in his school room, after the last evening shift has gone home. He dreams of becoming a lawyer.
Hazara people have been deprived of everything. If we dont have social justice, we will not be men for ourselves. Our destiny will just be that of men carrying wheels on their shoulders. I want to tell people about their rights.
In this city of dust and the debris of war, the refugees appear full of hope. They have waited some of them for nearly a quarter of a century to come home. For the moment at least, their freedom makes up for the poverty that surrounds them.