RAWALPINDI — "PINDI" FOR short — is the Pakistani city closest to Islamabad. Because of their proximity to each other, the two places are sometimes called the twin cities. But they’re nothing alike. Islamabad’s clean, wide boulevards provide a sharp contrast to Pindi’s crowded streets and alleyways. The wealthy flourish in Islamabad; low-income households crowd Pindi. And although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has offices in Islamabad, Afghans who’ve crossed the national border over the years seeking shelter from war, drought, and persecution head for Pindi.
Knowing this, I expect it to be easy to find the Afghan refugees flooding into Pakistan that we’ve heard so much about in recent weeks. My first stop will be Islamabad and the UNHCR offices to get some information. My next stop will be Pindi. Even if I don’t get help from UNHCR, I figure it will be easy to find refugees from Afghanistan (who constitute the single largest group of refugees worldwide, at 5 million) residing in Pakistan. After all, even before the United States began its bombing campaign against the Taliban, Pakistan housed 2 million Afghan refugees, more than any other country. Not an insignificant number when you consider that 144 million people make up the entire population of Pakistan. Since the bombing campaign, an estimated 135,000 more have flooded in. What I don’t know when I begin my quest, however, is that Pakistani animosity toward the Afghans has pushed the refugees even further to the margins, making them all but invisible to foreign visitors.
I find some refugees only with the help of a 19-year-old Afghan woman named Zohra, from Tajik. She has solid connections with the Pindi refugees and acts as my guide and translator. Zohra locates refugee families by making calls on her cell phone, working her way through her list of connections in what seems like an elaborate game of telephone tag. She chats with shop owners, gathering information. Her efforts lead us to a nondescript building, which I’d never have found on my own, that blends into the bustle of Pindi. Walking through the entrance, I am struck by how clean and orderly the interior seems, in contrast to the confusing disorder of Pindi’s streets. The three-story building houses 20 refugee families. Each family has at least five members, so more than 100 refugees cram themselves into the space.
Each "apartment," which houses a family, consists of one room. Bathing facilities are shared and located off the open hallways. Rent for the rooms runs from 1100 to 1500 rupees per month (about $18 to $25). It doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that the salary for the average government worker in Pakistan is 3000 to 5000 rupees a month. Few refugees can find work, and, if they do, it’s rare to earn more than 20 rupees a day. Meanwhile, one nan (Pakistani bread) costs from five to 10 rupees.
Here I meet Sobira and her three children, who live in one of the rooms, along with her parents. Her parents took refuge in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Sobira stayed in Kabul. Her husband, Ali, was imprisoned by the Taliban for transgressions Sobira refuses to explain. When he was freed from prison in 1998, they decided to flee Kabul. But "after his release, he couldn’t cope with the things the Taliban did to him," Sobira says. "They broke him. He lost his mind." Ali eventually killed himself.
As we talk, Sobira’s youngest daughter pulls a pile of photographs from the drawer of a lopsided cabinet — the room’s only furniture. Along with the photos, the cabinet holds neatly arranged, but unmatched, chipped dishes. Sobira shuffles through the photos and pulls out a few taken when she still lived in Kabul. She and Ali are smiling with two of their children. They seem proud, happy; they’re neatly dressed. It’s a shocking contrast with the present: Sobira and her children are in tattered clothes. They sleep on a flimsy carpet on the floor that barely keeps the cold from seeping through.