Officials in Afghanistan say with relative peace and stability restored in much of the country, many of Afghanistan's nearly four million refugees are returning home. Refugee officials say nearly 500,000 Afghan refugees have returned in the past two months. Most of them are coming from Pakistan. But, in the past three weeks, 30,000 refugees in Iran have also returned and their numbers are increasing.
The refugees begin arriving minutes after Iran's border post opens in the morning. They come on special buses that shuttle all day between the Iranian border post, 200 meters away, and this compound of white tents pitched on a treeless no-man's land between the two borders. The returnees, as they are called, climb down from the bus. U.N. staff tell them how to proceed.
They go to the reception center, in two large tents. The families sit down in one tent and wait.
The heads-of-family go to register in the tent next door. Days before, these people told U.N. refugee officials in Iran that they were ready to go home. They registered and were given traveling documents. They present these papers to be signed by a U.N. official and then pass outside, refugees no more.
Gul Ahmad is an architect who fled to Iran several years ago after the Taliban took control of western Afghanistan. He says he is glad to be back in his country.
He says he has come back to help re-build Afghanistan. He hopes to find work in the construction industry that everyone says is now reviving. Refugees in Iran only began returning a few weeks ago, but already this center is processing 2,500 of them a day. Officials say they expect the rate of returnees to increase next month when the school year ends in Iran.
Refugee officials say nearly half of the returnees from Iran are single men, unlike those from Pakistan who are almost all families. They fled to Iran either because they supported the Mujahideen, that fought the Taleban, or they were looking for jobs.
Golam Sarvar fled to Tehran with his family-of-five several years ago. He says Taleban soldiers were harassing men whom they suspected of supporting their enemy, the Mujahideen.
He says three years ago he was a Mujahid. And when the Taleban arrived, they told him to hand over his weapons. So he decided to leave.
Mr. Sarvar says life in Iran, however, was not easy either. There was discrimination against Afghans. People would tell him to go home.
The Director of the Islam Qala reception center, Mohim Khurram, says people believe the situation has improved in Afghanistan and as a result they want to resume their normal lives.
"Now it is a step towards reconstruction of the country, peace and stability," he said. "Since all of them are returning voluntarily, it means they are hopeful, and they are optimistic about the future of Afghanistan."
While the returnees are having their papers processed, the trucks that brought them from Iran have crossed to the other side of the reception center with their luggage. When the returnees come out of the center, they transfer their belongings to Afghan trucks provided by relief agencies.
The returnees are given free transportation home and about $10 per person in cash. When they reach their destination, they will also receive some food and items like cooking pots and plastic sheeting for shelter. Everyone is excited and in a hurry to get on the road. The trip to the provincial capital, Herat, 125 kilometers away, will take five hours because of the poor condition of the roads. Many returnees are going to Herat, but others are crossing the country to Kabul, 1,200 kilometers away. Their journey will take several days. Once home, the returnees will face more hardships. Officials say the next big task is to reintegrate them into their communities, to provide them with health services, educational opportunities and jobs. In a country shattered by a quarter-century of war, the task is daunting. But for now, there is happiness here, because despite the uncertainties ahead, these people are going home.