THE CROSSING

Homesick for Nowhere

Refugees from a place that no longer exists, these Afghan settlers live in a slapped-together collection of tents on land that belongs to their ancestral enemy.

Anna Badkhen
Anna Badkhen

MAWJIR KISHLAK — Homesickness.

Dictionaries define it as the longing for home during a period of absence. There must be, then, a separate term for the pining of the 1,300 people who have settled in the wind-beaten tents, dugouts, and hand-slapped mud huts of Mawjir Kishlak. Their homesickness is without a specific object or duration; it is metaphysical and infinite. Their period of absence began before most of them were born.

Who knows when it will end?

The two knolls of Mawjir Kishlak — “Immigrant Village” in Dari — rise out of the clay road like the twin humps of a Bactrian camel. Children in bright dresses eddy around the dwellings that saddle the hillocks. Most of the children are barefoot. Their hair and voices are thick with dust. None of them seem to know their exact age. But their parents can tell you in which refugee camp they were born.

Most were born in Jalozai Refugee Camp, near Peshawar, Pakistan, where the 225 families that now squat in Mawjir Kishlak lived after fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 28 years ago.

Some were born in Sholgara, a town southwest of Mazar-e-Sharif, in a field designated for buzkashi, the Afghan national sport that involves horsemen and a beheaded goat. The buzkashi field was where the Afghan Ministry for Refugees and Repatriation first dumped the families when they returned to their homeland two years ago.

The littlest ones were born here, in Mawjir Kishlak, where the ministry’s officials moved the families when the buzkashi season started. The ministry promised the refugees that Mawjir Kishlak was their final destination. That this land was in government possession and the government was allocating it to them. That finally, they were home.

When word of this reached Malim Salam in his large family house in Kishlak Qadim, two miles away, he was surprised.

Malim Salam spreads a piece of paper on the carpet of his large living room. The paper shows a map and some official-looking stamps. It is a deed to the hills of Mawjir Kishlak. His father owned the land before him, and his father’s father owned it before that. It is the pasturage of his sheep and goats. The government has never asked Malim Salam for permission to put any refugees on this land.

“I respect these people; I have nothing against them,” Malim Salam tells me. “I respect their human rights and I respect the government, so I have not kicked them out by force. But they have usurped my land.”

Misallocation of land has plagued the return of refugees to Afghanistan. Many refugees end up on land like the stretch of infertile, salt desert I visited two weeks ago, in Camp Shahraqi Mawjirin, with no access to jobs or health care or schools for the children. Many others, like the families in Mawjir Kishlak, are placed on contested or private land. People in Mawjir Kishlak, incidentally, have no access to health care or schools, either. The nearest water source is the Balkh River, a muddy mountain runoff that gurgles through a valley near Malim Salam’s house.

The conflict over Mawjir Kishlak is all the more contentious because the landowner is an ethnic Uzbek, and the returnees are Baluch, a Pashto-speaking people. Northern Afghanistan dwells in the blood Uzbek and Pashtun militias have spilled over decades of recurrent fighting with each other.

April is ending; it is time to take livestock to pasture. Malim Salam wants his grazing land back. Last week, he filed a petition to the government, asking that the refugees be removed.

“I’m not a powerful man. I am not against the government. I am not a warlord. I want to solve my problem legally,” he says, pushing the deed toward me again across the black-and-red crystal pattern of his carpet.

But the squatters’ elder, Mullah Ghulam Rasul, says that the families are not leaving. That the government has put them on this land and therefore it is rightfully theirs. That vagrancy has exhausted his small flock. He is a beautiful, tall man with an aquiline nose and ember-like eyes. He looks three decades older than his 54 years. A homesick year counts for two.

I don’t know the age of Bibi Rangina, who lets her wild gray hair hang unbraided under a large black scarf. She looks to be 100.

“They should either give us land, or bury us all in it,” she croaks, and spits.

Last year, the settlers began to fortify their encampment. Among the weathered donated tents bearing sky-blue UNHCR stamps, they built single-room huts out of clay. They clawed caves out of the face of the hill and roofed them with straw and sticks. They spread colorful, threadbare kilims inside and nailed wooden hooks into walls to hang handwoven cradles for their infants. Their dwellings began to take on the appearance of home.

Like the Little Prince, who started each day by pulling baobab sprouts out of his tiny planet, the women of Mawjir Kishlak begin each day by sweeping out snakes and frogs that have crawled into their huts and caves overnight.

And then, they keep sweeping. All day. Until their arms go numb. Until the kilims are impeccably, painfully clean. Until they can almost forget that clumps of dry earth shake loose out of the walls each time someone walks by. Until they can almost believe that they are home.

Until night seeps into the unlit camp in streaks of dusty ultramarine and umber, and white flashes of dry lightening flare over the twin humps of Mawjir Kishlak, and it is time to put another homeless, homesick day to bed.


Read the next dispatch, “In the Children’s Ward.”

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