‘Afghan’ basti?

Is Islamabad's I/11 katchi abadi a disastrous case of mistaken identity? Luavut Zahid reports

‘Afghan’ basti?
Hundreds of mud houses line up over the I/11 expanse, which is said to be one of the largest slum areas in Islamabad. Conflation of Afghanistan’s Pakhtun people with those living in Pakistan has helped the area earn the ‘Afghan Basti’ moniker from the CDA. However, people that live there say that none of them are Afghans at all.

The All Pakistan Kachi Abadi Alliance estimates that over 2,000 families live in the area which houses between 20,000-25,000 people, approximately. The CDA on the other hand, when asked, refused to reveal the numbers they have through their own surveys.

An unnamed source from within the CDA, said that plans to remove the ‘Afghans’ in the area are going to be finalized after Eid.

“We plan to start work then but it will take time. It is under process right now and there are discussions being done with the concerned authority. The middle stake holders include the ICT and the local administration. We don’t yet have a specific date as to when the operation will begin – but it will happen,” he said.

As per the National Housing Policy of 2001, before the people of the area can only be removed from their homes they need to be provided new ones. However, unless the CDA acknowledges that the people living there are Pakistanis, it can shirk all responsibility towards resettling people there. “We had a relocation plan a year ago, but we do not at this point in time have one,” the source from the CDA informed tellingly.

Children in the slum use a hand pump to get water
Children in the slum use a hand pump to get water

The Afghan label has stereotyped the Pakhtuns and vastly affected the dynamics of the area

“The previous plan included that the people of the area would be sent back to their native lands. Most of these people are Persians. We thought that we would move them to the Peshawar camps for Afghan refugees. However, this was just our plan from last year, we have nothing of the sort going on right now,” he added with no mention of the Pakistanis that live there.

“The major stakeholders there are Afghan and they aren’t that many in number, only a small amount of them are there,” the source said while speaking of the upcoming demolition. “When the National Action Plan (NAP) was brought about it was decided that for security reasons all the katchi abadis would be shifted outside Islamabad, and this was a part of that plan,” he added.

But they’re not Afghans

Contrary to the CDA’s assertions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes there are no documented Afghans in the I/11 area.

Communication and Public Information Officer, Duniya Aslam Khan shed some light on the matter. “The Afghan basti is not in I/11, it’s in I/12. They were moved in 2009 – not by UNHCR, we had requested the government of Pakistan to find a site for the Afghans to be moved to. Before 2009 they were living in F-10 and surrounding areas,” she said.

“The CDA wanted them to vacate the area so the UNHCR facilitated their relocation from F-10 to I/12. Around 5,000 registered refugees are in that area. On the other hand, in I/11 you have IDPs but UNHCR is not working with IDPs or anyone else in that area,” she explained and added that while the I/12 area is not officially recognized as a camp, but it is a recognized refugee settlement.

“People often confuse the IDPS and Pakhtuns with the Afghans in the I/11 area, which is not correct,” she added.

Deliberately conflating the Afghani Pakhtuns with the Pakistani Pakhtuns is what has earned people in these areas their predicament. Many of them hail from not across the border but places like Charsadda, Mardan, Peshwar, Bajaur and Mohmand Agency, along with many other areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“In 2013, the CDA was trying to claim this area again and there was a lot of confusion between I/11 and I/12 and we had to explain to them that we are more in I/12. There are no documented Afghan refugees there. I can’t speak for undocumented Afghans but if someone there has an ID card from Pakistan than they are Pakistanis,” Duniya said resolutely.

That has been the main reason that several attempts to evict the dwellers over the course of the last decade or more were met with stay orders from the High Court. This was the case in 2001, when the CDA lost, and again in 2005 and 2006 where the matter was put to bed – only for it to resurface after the current government took control in 2013.

Several men in the area promptly produced their ID cards to squash the Afghan myth
Several men in the area promptly produced their ID cards to squash the Afghan myth

In I/11 talks of the demolition frequently come up. With many eyeing the capital LG polls as expectant candidates, the people in the area hope that someone from their own ranks can help them find more recognition.

“We are not Afghans,” says Saleem, a fruit seller settled in the area before he waves his Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) in the air as proof.

Despite it being made entirely of mud, the people in the area have been around for a long time. “I have lived here for 30 years. I was born here!” Saleem told me. “Where is my family supposed to go, we know no other home,” he lamented.

It is ironic that the very people that are labeled Afghan are highly sought after during election season. “When it’s time to vote all these politicians come to us. And when we are not needed we are called ‘Afghans’,” an elder from the area said.

Under the Urban Shelter Program the CDA legalized a few slums and left the rest out in the lurch, because the national policy dictated that any slums setup after March 1985 were illegal. Ammar Rashid, is a research and teacher at the Quaid-e-Azam University, and works with the All Pakistan Kachi Abadi Alliance. He talked about how flawed system really is.

“We have in our possession voter lists consisting of thousands of people living in the I-11 and other katchi abadis as far back as the 1985 General Election,” he said.

Ammar feels that the Afghan label has stereotyped the Pakhtuns and vastly affected the dynamics of the area. “This is a clear case of the rampant demonization and dehumanization of an entire population on the basis of non-existent facts,” he said.

Un-documenting the documented

Authorities have taken to blocking several thousand CNICs in the country, most of them belonging to Pakhtuns. In a bid to rid the country of hidden Afghan refugees, it seems that the authorities are also unwittingly wiping clean the identities of its own people.

This systematic disenfranchisement of the Pakhtun people is at play in the slums as well.

“Much of Islamabad now regards this slum as an ‘Afghan’ area, populated by terrorists that present a critical security threat to the Capital. The fact that the vast majority of people living here have Pakistani ID cards, birth certificates, B-Forms, etc, seems to have ceased to matter,” Ammar lamented.

Is the reason that the CDA and the authorities keep referring to the Pakhtuns here as ‘Afghanis’ related to creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative?

“The authorities have successfully recast a community of displaced and destitute people as aliens who are poised for a violent invasion of Islamabad,” Ammar informs.

Consequences for the people living in these areas have been grand. Access to education and healthcare remain persistent as the question mark over their existence holds. Verily, in addition to losing their homes the people of these areas stand to lose something that is less simple to reestablish – their identities.

“NADRA blocks their CNICs on the pretext of getting them ‘verified’ and then never gets back to them, however many proof of citizenship they furnish. We have spoken to officials at NADRA and they insist ‘all’ of the people in the area are Afghans, an utterly ludicrous claim not backed up by any evidence.

“This is calculated disenfranchisement and institutional racism which simply serves to cover up the material basis for these evictions, i.e., the land requirements of the CDA and developers/mafia associated with the ruling party (the PML-N’s Anjum Aqeel, for instance, acquired a lot of land in and around the I-11 abadi around the time the CDA started issuing threats – definitely something that merits an investigation on its own),” he told me.

Previously, the people of this area were able to get stay orders to protect their homes. But times have changed – and with national security and the Afghan label at play there is little they can do.

“The Islamabad High Court has been providing judicial cover for the eviction attempts, thus rendering any stay order by a lower court legally ineffective. What compounds the issue is that the IHC judge presiding over the case has thus far refused to issue a judgment on the case (only issuing a series of orders), which makes it difficult to challenge his rulings in a higher court,” Ammar informed.

“Slum-dwellers involved with the kachi abadi alliance tried to become a party to the ongoing case itself on the grounds that their constitutional rights were being infringed by the judge’s orders, but he refused to entertain their plea. As things stand, decisions are being made about the homes of hundreds of thousands of people without even considering their voice or their constitutional rights,” he added.

How do you find help when you don’t exist? That is a question the Pakistani Pakhtuns in these areas have no answers to – and it’s one that the authorities are not ready to face.