PAKISTAN: Afghans in Lahore concerned at lack of voting facilitiesLahore, 2 October 2004 (IRIN) - Even though millions of Afghan refugees have left Pakistan over the past two years under the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) repatriation programme, including thousands from Lahore, Afghan refugees remain a part of the Punjabi capital's cityscape.
Though accurate estimates of their numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated that at least 7,000 Afghans are scattered across the city.
Some seem destined to live in the country permanently. Many others maintain they would like to return, but lack the means, or fear for their future in a country still stricken by war.
"I have never lived in Afghanistan. We fled to Pakistan when I was just a baby," Habib, now 12, told IRIN. He maintained he would "love to see his country" and often looks at the handful of Afghan soil his older brother, Rahim, keeps in a glass jar. But his family is "too poor to risk going back", he said.
Habib is among the Afghans who live around the Bedian Road area, which often includes the most impoverished members of the community.
However, he insists that he hopes to go back "very soon". While Karamatullah and his eldest son, Rahim, are both well aware of and interested in arrangements being made to register Afghans in Pakistan to vote in Afghan elections, they doubt they can travel up to Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), about 250 km to the northwest, to register, when the process opens, over the first three days of October.
"There is no registration here in Lahore, or close to it, and it is very costly to go to Peshawar, even by bus," explains Rahim. He added, "I would love to vote. It is important that all Afghans play a role in re-building our country."
Tajammul John Muneer, Coordinator of the Afghan Refugees Programme at Caritas in Lahore, the implementing partners for UNHCR in refugee programmes, told IRIN: "There is immense interest in the election among refugees in the city. Most want a registration centre and balloting arrangements to be set up here, as it is difficult for them to reach Peshawar."
Most Afghans living in New Garden Town, areas along the Raiwind Road or other parts of Lahore seem cut off from the mainstream body of Afghan refugees, still based in Peshawar, Quetta or camps in NWFP. However, news of the registration process for refugees has reached them, and enthusiasm is high.
Only logistical arrangements stand in the way. "It is important to vote, and I would like to do so. Some Afghan men don't allow women to vote, but my husband would not prevent me. However, I cannot possibly leave my six children here and go to Peshawar," said Sharmina.
There are some young Afghans though, a number of them based around the huge bus depot at Badami Bagh, who maintain they will indeed be going to register. "I work as a bus conductor with a private bus company. I am collecting money, and hope to go home to my village near Kandahar, next spring," said Fayyaz, 23, who arrived in Lahore in 1999, escaping the Taliban.
He added that he hoped to stop in Peshawar for a day on 1 October, and register to vote. He also says several other young Afghans he knows, living in Lahore, will register too.