Deported Afghans return home by the thousands to unexpected welcome

21 January 2024

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TORKHAM CROSSING, Afghanistan — At Pakistan’s main border crossing with northern Afghanistan, the narrow path into an uncertain future runs between two rusty iron fences and ends beneath a black-and-white flag of the Taliban-run government.

Many of the returning Afghan refugees who arrived here last week expected the worst as they stepped onto muddy Afghan soil amid torrential rain.

Caught up in a major deportation drive and forced to leave their homes in Pakistan, some had never been to the war-ravaged country their parents were born in. Others assumed they would barely recognize the cities they fled after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, where schools are now closed for many girls and music is prohibited.

But as they entered their transformed country, many refugees appeared puzzled. There was a poster wishing them a “good and comfortable life.” Rifle-wielding soldiers handed out food and wore bright garlands to celebrate the refugees’ return. Trucks stood ready to transport the returnees and their belongings to sprawling tent cities where 30,000 have found shelter and most families receive a $140 cash payment from the government.

“We wish we had returned sooner,” said Sardar Ali, 35, a laborer who was born in Pakistan to Afghan parents and who most recently worked in Rawalpindi.