Shamshatu refugee camp, headquarters of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami in Pakistan since the 1980s, is increasingly empty. Many residents, including a number of important Hezb leaders, have left for Afghanistan, encouraged to return by the peace agreement signed by Hekmatyar and President Ashraf Ghani in September 2016. The deal paved the way for the return of those living in the camp and included promises of land and government posts. However, many residents fear the deal will not be fully implemented and are not yet ready to leave permanently. AAN’s Fazal Muzhary has been to the camp and describes the history, current mood and recent developments in this, Hekmatyar’s stronghold (with input from Thomas Ruttig and Kate Clark).A sign of recent changes in the bazaar of Shamshatu, which would be more crowded before the new changes of 2016. Though the crowd in the bazaar has been considerably reduced, more people are expected to leave the camp. The possible new returns can further cause downsize to the business in the bazaar of Shamshatu camp.
A look into Nasrat Mena (better known as Shamshatu)
After almost three and a half decades of existence, one of the best known and most significant Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan is slowly emptying. Following the peace agreement with the government – and the general pressure Afghan refugees are under from Pakistan to leave (on repatriation see AAN analysis here) – many are deciding to ‘go home’.
Although the camp is officially known as Nasrat Mena – which translates as the Victory Quarter, an allusion to the hope that Afghans would overcome the Soviet occupation – the camp is better known as Shamshatu. This is the name of the barren, desert-like area inhabited by tortoises in which it was set up in 1983. (Shamshatu means ‘tortoise’ in Pashto.) It was founded to host Afghan refugees who poured out of their country after the coup d’etat by leftists in 1978 and subsequent Soviet military invasion over Christmas, 1979. What was supposed to be a temporary refugee camp, where people lived in tents, developed into a full-blown town of mud buildings, a large sprawl to the southeast of the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial capital, Peshawar. There was a bazaar, schools, mosques, small restaurants, two hospitals (one for men and one for women) and two universities, one military and another with a medical, engineering and education faculties.
Like many of the other Afghan refugee camps that were established in the 1980s, control over Shamshatu camp was handed to an Afghan mujahedin faction then fighting the Soviet occupation, in this case, Hezb-e Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (or HIG) (1). Islamabad had become the funnel for large amounts of cash, weapons and other supplies from western and Arab countries and China to the mujahedin. Donors allowed Islamabad to distribute the aid as it saw fit. It chose to recognise only seven factions, all Sunni and all Islamist or with a ‘Muslim’ orientation, who became known as ‘the Seven’ or ‘the Peshawar Seven’, Haftgana in Dari. If refugees wanted humanitarian supplies, they had to join one of these factions and, in some camps, including Shamshatu, they had to ‘join’ the faction controlling the camp. Hezb-e Islami was Pakistan’s most favoured faction (until the rise of the Taleban in the mid-1990s) and it received the bulk of foreign arms and funding. Jamestown’s Terrorism Monitor quoted a financial officer for the camp’s administration in 2007 as saying that “Whoever lives or has lived in the camp is a supporter of Engineer Hekmatyar and a member of Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan, because this camp belongs to Hezb-e Islami.” This was not entirely the case; the population was always more mixed. However, it was Hezb’s stronghold and most people who lived there were ‘members’.
Almost a city
If you travel along the road leading from Peshawar to Shamshatu, you meet two check-posts at the immediate entrance to the camp. The first, outer check-post is manned by Pakistani police and the second by security guards of the camp, deployed by Hezb-e Islami.
Once inside, the road from Peshawar divides the camp into two parts. To the left is Area A (Alef Saha, in Pashto) and, to the right, Area B (Ba Saha). Area A is dominated by a large congregational mosque. It was the first building constructed in Shamshatu, according to Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based political analyst and former member of Hezb-e Islami (and then of the Taleban). For Eid, when the camp was still fully populated, about 50,000 men and boys would come here to perform the holiday prayers. While laying its foundation stone in 1982, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar named the mosque Imam Muhammad Bin Hassan al-Shaibani. Dominant in Area B is the large Qais Bin Saad School, built on about 40 to 50 jeribs (8 to 10 hectares) of land in 1984. Part of this school is still used by Hezb as a party office. According to Muzhda, there was also an underground bunker available in case of explosions and other attacks.
At the height of its population, there were about 800 shops in Shamshatu which were rented to refugees by the municipality of the camp which is also controlled by the party. Almost all day-to-day necessities are available in these shops, including medicine, bread, fruit, vegetables, cooking oil and all kinds of other foodstuffs and household items. Furthermore, people living in the camp have access to several types of services. As in any Afghan town, there are workshops belonging to carpenters, car mechanics and electricians, and technicians and labourers for hire. This saves people journeys to Peshawar for shopping or employment, and also means the party has benefited from the rent and the economic activity.
There was a particular place for shopping in the camp where only women with their mahram or male family member could go. The security guards were always present there and they would not allow a girl or woman to enter without a mahram. The market only sold ‘women’s items’ – female clothes, cosmetics and other daily necessities. The shops in this area would close before the evening call to prayer and beyond that time, no one could be seen in the area. The residents of Shamshatu were not allowed to sell or buy naswar (snuff), cigarettes, or music tapes and videos and shaving beards was outlawed. Hezb members told AAN that the shopping area for women, and the ban on naswar and shaving no longer exist, but playing loud music and selling video CDs of western and Indian movies are still banned.
Apart from the large Friday mosque, 38 small mosques also sprang up over the decades. Friday and Eid prayers were only ever performed in the major congregational mosque, though; imams at the other mosques were banned from performing these prayers. There were also three high schools such as (Qais Bin Saad High School and Abu Ayub Ansari for boys and Al-Banat al-Mu’minat for girls) and a few primary schools. A ‘jihadi university’, which focused on training fighters, whom the Hezb people referred to as ‘army officers’, was established in the camp around 1985. Engineer Abdul Salam, Hekmatyar’s military assistant, told AAN that during the resistance against the Soviet occupation, six classes, each of 60 to 70 students (a total of around 300 to 400 people) graduated as ‘officers’ from the academy. The university was closed in the 1990s; Hezb officials did not recall the exact year. Another, civilian university, was also established; it was later moved to Peshawar city and then, in 2008, to Khost province, where it was renamed Sheikh Zayed University after the founder of the United Arab Emirates which funded the relocation.
How Hezb came to dominate Shamshatu
Hekmatyar, fled Afghanistan to Pakistan in 1975, after an unsuccessful attempt to start an Islamist uprising in July that year. According to Muzhda, Hekmatyar first did his political work from a small building in the Faqirabad district of Peshawar. After the coup and Soviet invasion and the huge influx of Afghan refugees into Peshawar, and looming security threats – including a bomb blast in front of the Hezb office, thought to be the work of KhAD (Afghan state intelligence) – the Pakistani government was convinced to move the bases of Afghan jihadi groups out of the city.
In 1982, a six-member team was tasked with finding a location for a camp for Hezb-affiliated refuges and negotiating the lease of the land from the local government. One of the six was Engineer Salam, who worked at different positions in the party and is currently head of all Hezb-e Islami offices in Kabul. He told AAN that they leased 500 jeribs (100 hectares) of land from the local government and another 500 jeribs from local people, both for 99 years. Hezb still pays 1,300 Pakistani rupees (today roughly 11 USD) per jerib, per year. Once it was decided to set up the camp, a plan was drawn up and it was divided into two parts, parts A and B, either side of the road from Peshawar.
According to a military commission member of Hezb, Akhtar Muhammad Sharafat, 4,000 plots were distributed to party supporters from different provinces. Most of the important party commanders lived in the camp, at least temporarily when sheltering from operations in Afghanistan and coming for supplies. Hekmatyar’s office was put into Area B of the camp, and although he also had a home in Peshawar city, he preferred to be in Shamshatu and would stay there most of the time (2).
In order to manage the daily affairs in the camp, a number of departments were set up, including on security, culture, judicial matters, education, finance, planning and management, health and social services, which focused on helping martyrs’ relatives. A mayor was selected every three years by the members of the financial committee (there was no election). The members of the power and water (the camp had 11 wells, each about 400 feet deep) collected taxes and payments for bills. There were more than 100 security personnel, who would patrol the camp or man security posts that were spread over the camp, specifically near hospitals, wells, in the bazaar and in other important areas.
Engineer Salam told AAN that, although Shamshatu was dominated by Hezb members, supporters of other mujahedin factions, such as Jamiat and Harakat, were also living there, making use of the facilities such as the schools, hospitals, the security provided and the large bazaar (other camps did not have all the facilities that were available in Shamshatu). They were not given land by the party and personally purchased the land from Pakistanis. In addition to Afghans, some foreign fighters also lived in the camp at the time of the resistance against the Soviet invasion, including Arabs and Central Asians. This is not the case anymore, according to Salam.
The darker history: prisons and torture
During the anti-Soviet ‘jihad’, Shamshatu also had its own prison where, allegedly, torture was carried out; this is detailed in a 2005 report by the Afghanistan Justice Project (AJP.
Mujahidin factions based in Pakistan maintained prisons where they held, tortured and in some cases executed Afghan refugees suspected of opposition to the policies or practices of the Pakistan-based groups. Hizb-i Islami (Hikmatyar) and Hizb-i Islami (Khalis) both maintained prisons near Peshawar. Human Rights Watch has described some of these prisons. One of the best known was Shamshatoo, which was used by Hikmatyar to detain men and women. According to Human Rights Watch, “Torture [was] reported to be routine, including severe beatings and the use of electric shock.” The intelligence agencies of these factions also carried out abductions of Afghan refugees. Human Rights Watch also reported that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also interrogated, and sometimes tortured Afghan refugees considered to be a “security threat,” in some cases because they did not support one of the Peshawar-based mujahidin parties recognized by Pakistan. In some cases these detainees would be handed over from the ISI to Hikmatyar.
Asia Watch, which interviewed refugees in Pakistan in mid-1990 and gathered the names of people who had been allegedly detained in the detention facility, described the prison: “[The detention facility] is reportedly a two-story prison, part of which is underground. The prison reportedly included a section for women prisoners.”
In addition, Hezb is also accused of carrying out assassination of people they deemed enemies in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with operations based out of Shamshatu. Hezb-e Islami was blamed for the killings of members of other mujahedin factions, monarchists, women’s activists and intellectuals. One of the most notorious was that of Sayed Bahauddin Majruh in February 1988. Majruh was the publisher of the highly respected Afghan Information Centre Monthly Bulletin, which, a few months before his murder, had published the results of a survey that found that 70 per cent of Afghan refugees supported the former king, Zahir Shah, over any of the mujahedin leaders. Hekmatyar got very few votes. Asia Watch reported that Majruh had received death threats from Hezb-e Islami before his murder.
First deputy CEO, Muhammad Khan, who was Hezb’s intelligence or deputy intelligence chief and living in Shamshatu at the time of these alleged war crimes, denied them in an interview with AAN in June 2014. He said he had only been concerned with foiling plots by Afghan state intelligence agency, KhAD, and Shamshatu had had no detention centre, only security offices which dealt with the “internal affairs of the war” and one [weapons] depot.
The camp’s population; then and now
Shamshatu has seen rises and falls in its population over the last thirty years. Member of military commission of Hezb, Akhtar Muhammad Sharafat told AAN how the camp’s population quickly increased from the initial 1,000 families, mainly Hezb supporters, who came in the early 1980s, to, at its maximum, about 8,000 families (a more politically mixed population). According to Muzhda, who closely followed the changes in Shamshatu over the years, a number of Shamshatu residents started to support the Taleban around 1995 because of news of the Taleban surge in Afghanistan. Also, Pakistan started to strongly support the Taleban. When the Taleban regime fell in 2001, there were again population movements. At first, the number of non-Hezbi residents increased after the Taleban lost power as some families affiliated with the Taleban fled Afghanistan and settled in Shamshatu. However, there was also soon a movement in the opposite movement. Various Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan emptied after the fall of the Taleban regime when many Afghans decided to return to Afghanistan. Since 2001, more than 4.5 million Afghans living in Pakistan as refugees have returned, but most of them were non-Hezbis. Shamshatu was a partial exception; decisions by Hekmatyar drove also the decisions of many Shamshatu inhabitants about whether to stay or go.
Hekmatyar was at first ambivalent about the ‘developments’ of late 2001 and then became hostile to the new government. Although his son-in-law, Humayun Jarir, was in the Bonn conference in late 2001 but under the umbrella of another delegation (the Cyprus Group), it was not clear whether he had a Hezb mandate for this, the faction did not become part of the Afghan government and suffered some revenge harassment from its long-term rivals, Jamiat-e Islami which had captured Kabul; in the end, Hekmatyar opted to launch a ‘jihad’ against the Kabul administration and its foreign backers. In February 2002, he was deported from Iran where he had found asylum after he was forced out of Kabul by the Taleban in 1996. He claimed to have gone into hiding in the Shegal valley of eastern Kunar. (3) Although he was away from Shamshatu, he was able to continue to control the camp with the help of his military assistant, Engineer Salam.
Hezb members told AAN that the camp did not see a considerable decrease of inhabitants after the fall of Taleban regime in 2001, but this is not quite accurate. At the time of the fall of the Taleban UNHCR estimated the camp’s population at 53,000 people (roughly 7000 families). It later reported that, by November 2002, more than 15,000 residents of Shamshatu, mainly non-Pashtuns, had handed in their ration cards, destroyed their houses and boarded trucks back to Afghanistan. The camp’s population was now down to just over 37,600, according to an UNHCR update. Services had been reduced due to the smaller population and “the number of non-governmental organisations active in the camp has shrunk from 37 to nine.” Nevertheless, Sharafat stated that, based on electricity and water bills, there were still around 8000 families (roughly 53,000 people) living in this camp until mid-2016. Although he admitted that the population saw a decrease, he said it was not as much as in other – non-Hezbi – camps (which was true).
Although, since 2001 some pro-Hezb-e Islami people returned to Kabul, or decided to have houses both in Kabul and Shamshatu, most of the Hezb supporters felt they were not in a position to completely return. Two reasons can be considered: one is the fact that they had leased the land for 99 years and second that the Pakistani government, at the time, did not put much pressure on Afghan refugees, generally, to leave.
Nasrat Mena after the peace deal
Two developments came in 2016 to ‘encourage’ residents of Shamshatu to leave. Firstly, like all other Afghan refugees, pressure by the Pakistani authorities on Afghans to leave intensified. Moves included the border closure of Torkham in June 2016, the building of a gate for the first time on the Pakistani side of the border and a number of new rules including the necessity for Afghans to carry a passport and valid visa to enter Pakistan. Afghans living in Shamsahtu said they began to fear the border closure might be permanent and their way home would be blocked. Moreover, the new border measures made it difficult for Afghans living in Shamshatu to commute between Kabul and Peshawar using their refugee cards, as had used to be the case. Families began to leave Shamshatu camp from June 2016.
Secondly, the signing of the peace agreement between the Afghan government and Hezb-e Islami on 29 September 2016 additionally galvanised the decision of many Afghans in Shamshatu to return to Afghanistan (on repatriation see AAN dispatches here). After the peace agreement was signed, Hezb members in the camp changed how they spoke about Afghanistan. Before the peace deal, one resident told AAN, members and supporters would say that Afghanistan was occupied by the United States and the Afghan soldiers were their puppets. They have now reportedly dropped this rhetoric and say that those fighting the government are causing destruction.
Based on the agreement, the Afghan government is committed to “take all measures to resolve the problems of Afghan refugees living in Nusrat Mina Camp [Shamshatu] and other refugees based Pakistan and Iran.” These returnees would receive privileges including provision of land for their shelter with other necessary services in Kabul and other provinces, once the agreement is fully implemented. This can be considered as one of the incentives for Hezb supporters to return to Afghanistan. According to Engineer Salam, around a quarter of the inhabitants of Shamshatu have now returned to Afghanistan, but the number might actually be higher. As was the case earlier, some poor people destroyed their houses in the camp when leaving, taking the timber with them to use to build new homes (see photos). Currently there is only one high school for boys and one for girls left, and the number of security personnel reduced to about 60 from more 100 in 1980s.
Hezb people who spoke to AAN said that, there was no plan to fully destroy or abandon the camp. They said officials were still waiting for the full implementation of the peace agreement. They fear that if the agreement is not fully implemented or if there are disagreements between the government and Hekmatyar, there might be fresh fighting and they would then be unable to return to Pakistan, and in particular, to Shamshatu. Even Abdul Salam, Hekmatyar’s military assistant, is concerned as his family still lives in Shamshatu. He said once the agreement was implemented the Hezb supporters were going to return to Afghanistan in a ‘dignified’ way. However, it seems that low level Hezb supporters do not care whether the deal is implemented or not – they just want to go home. AAN was told, the accelerated rate of return from Shamshatu, mainly among low-level supporters lasted till the end of December 2016 when UNHCR stopped the repatriation process, for all Afghan refugees, due to cold weather in Afghanistan. That programme started again, on 3 April 2017.
Non-Hezbis in Shamshatu believe Hezb supporters will definitely return to Afghanistan, in order to get dividends from the peace deal, such as plots of land and jobs in the government. They also said that the return of Salam and other important Hezb members to Kabul in December 2016, though their families are still in Shamshatu, had further strengthened their belief that Hezb-affiliated people were serious about returning. It seems that once the agreement is fully implemented, it is likely that most residents of Shamshatu, including families of key Hezb members will return, particularly given the heightened pressure from Pakistan, which has extended the stay for Afghans only till end of 2017.
Engineer Salam told AAN that the assets and weapons that the party owned and used for protection would be shifted to Afghanistan, once the peace deal is fully implemented. Hezb is also planning to move schools, madrasas and other institutions to Afghanistan. He said that the leadership will decide about the fate of Shamshatu camp, but that for now they try to keep the camp as far as it is possible, until the peace agreement is fully implemented and the refugees have returned.
New Hezb mobilisation and preparations for Hekmatyar’s return
One of the changes seen in Shamshatu after the peace deal was signed, is that Hezb supporters started distributing new membership cards, both to the old members who lost their cards or were inactive for long time, and to new recruits that want to become members. These cards were also given to the new generation, who were born in Shamshatu and are ‘intellectually’ affiliated with Hezb, but had not become members. Afghan refugees in Shamshatu told AAN that many people had got new cards as they hoped to receive the benefits promised in the peace deal once they are in Afghanistan. The new recruits hope for government posts in Afghanistan, as they believe that Hezb will be given a quota in the government based on the peace deal “that entails Hezb’s participation in government in accordance to the law.” A rumour driving the distribution of the cards is that Turkey and Saudi Arabia may give money to party members to enable them to build houses upon their return in Afghanistan. The party leadership seems also to be trying to push membership to demonstrate its large following when party leader Hekmatyar finally returns to Kabul.
Sources in Shamshatu told AAN that another important change is the training of 250 to 400 armed Hezb members who would serve as a special guard for Hekmatyar after his return to Kabul. One source there told AAN that Hezb supporters in the camp stopped movement of ordinary people in the area where the training was carried out. According to this Afghan media report, these guards will receive a salary of between 200 and 250 USD from the government budget. According to the same source the training was supposed to be completed in January 2017, but in March, 2017, residents in Shamshatu confirmed that it was still ongoing. Although Hezb chief negotiator Muhammad Karim Amin did not confirm the training of the guards in Shamshatu, he did say that preparations for Hekmatyar’s security were underway, both in and outside of Afghanistan.
Last minute delays to the deal
Aside from general worries about the peace deal not going through, there have been particular problems in the last few weeks. Although the UN removed Hekmatyar’s name from its sanctions list, two commanders, Engineer Abdul Sabur and Abdullah Nawbahar, are on a US terrorism blacklist. The US State Department has offered two and three million dollars, respectively, of reward money for information leading to the men’s arrests. According to the peace deal the Afghan government is supposed to ‘request’ the UN Security Council and other relevant countries to lift sanctions against Hezb-e Islami leadership and its members. However, the request of Afghan government in December 2016 to the UN only included Hekmatyar’s name but not the names of the upper mentioned Hezb commanders (see report here). Sabur and Nawbahar are not going to return to Afghanistan unless their names are removed from the US blacklist, but that is unlikely to scupper the deal.
A more serious problem is prisoners. Based on the peace agreement the Afghan government is committed to releasing Hezb prisoners who have been imprisoned for political and military activities and against whom “there are no haq-ul-abd ‘right of people, as opposed to right of God’ claims.” During March 2017, Hezb repeatedly accused the government of not honouring its commitments, (see for example here). Some of the dispute is about the nature of the detainees. Hezb-e Islami submitted a list of 488 prisoners to be released, but the government only announced that some of the prisoners were going to be released. Officials told AAN they would not include those who had been involved in terrorist attacks. A source in Hezb-e Islami also told Pajhwok that, as well as not releasing prisoners, 70 Hezb supporters who had come to Kabul to celebrate the peace deal had been detained.
Hezb officials have also been concerned that plots of land have not been distributed. Based on this Washington Post report, Hekmatyar wants a big number of his supporters to be given land, but the Afghan government has said that was not feasible.
On 2 April 2017, however, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, acting spokesman for the president, said in a press conference that some Hezb prisoners would be released the following week (no releases have been reported), that all other responsibilities of the government would be completed within 15 days and that it was now up to Hezb to announce when their leader would return.
Concerns and a shifting composition
Since many pro-Hezb people have left Shahshatu for Afghanistan, and many more are planning to do so, non-Hezbis, who include many Taleban and Taleban-sympathisers, still living in the camp are concerned that it will become difficult for them to continue living there. Services will decline, they believe and the Pakistani police may continue to pressure those Afghan refugees remaining in this camp. It will then not be easy for the non-Hezbis to live in peace, on either side of the border. In Pakistan, Afghans are no longer welcome, and on the Afghan side, they will not be covered by the privileges obtained by Hezb for its members through the peace deal. The composition of the camp’s inhabitants is likely to change, with active members of the Taleban and sympathisers gaining more influence – if they are allowed to stay.
Editing by Thomas Ruttig, Kate Clark and Martine van Bijlert
(1) Other camps include Jalozai Refugee Camp that was given to Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s Ittehad-e islami (now Dawat-e islami) party and a camp in Cherat that was given to Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi’s Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami. This camp was also close to Jalozai camp, as was the small Khurasan camp, related to Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami in Pabbi area. In the Shamshatu desert, in addition to Nasrat Mena, two other camps existed, one given to Mawlawi Yunos Khales’ Hezb-e Islami (despite its name, it is a separate party from Hekmatyar’s), which still exists, and the second given to Qazi Muhammad Amin Waqad, who was a co-founder of Hekmatyar’s Hezb but later parted ways with it; it had been destroyed.
(2) Until the fall of the communist regime under Najibullah in 1992, Hekmatyar lived most of the time in Shamshatu. When he came to Kabul, he was mainly based in Chahar Asiab to the south of the city. After the Taleban took control of Kabul from the mujahedin in 1996, Hekmatyar fled to Iran.
(3) This was according to Hekmatyar’s book “Khubuna” (Dreams).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020