Afghan exiles face dilemma as UN pushes for return

June 21, 2002

Every month, a small convoy of buses leaves Istanbul for the Afghan capital, Kabul. The buses are part of a growing exodus of refugees returning home after years and, for some, decades of exile. Among them are students who were stranded in Turkey after the Taliban came to power.

Suheyla Ziyayi came to Turkey in 1995. Like many of her colleagues, she studied theology. But when the Taliban came to power, return was impossible.

"I last returned to Afghanistan four years ago, and when I was there the Taliban overran our village. It was very scary and I had to escape across the mountains into Pakistan. I was lucky to survive."

After seven years, she has decided to return, but she said the decision was not easy. "Now our hope, our wish from God, is peace in our country. We want young people to be educated, a better education for everybody, especially women."

Muhammad Alim, head of the Turkic Afghan Student Association, said the decision to return was difficult. "We have nearly 5,000 students who came here over the past ten years, most of whom were unable to return. Those who did go back got into serious trouble, and some were even killed. Many students have made a new life for themselves here. So to make the decision to move back is not easy."

Mustafa Gokcen is one of those who has decided not to return. He came to Turkey in 1993 to study and qualified as an anaesthetist. He is now married with a child and has a well-paid job. He said going back was too much of a risk. "If things were more stable and clear, I would love to return. But everything is so unclear - they could go to war again tomorrow and there is no work. It is just too unsafe."

But skilled people such as Mr Gokcen are precisely those the United Nations is trying to persuade to return. Turkey, with its large population of Afghan refugees, is a key country in a scheme aimed at encouraging professionals to return.

Regina Buco, head of the Turkish operation, said graduates were particularly wanted. "Afghanistan needs educated professionals urgently. Graduates are ideal, as most do not have families to support and other commitments."

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