In Jakarta's Little Afghanistan, few willing to return home
16 January 2002

JAKARTA, Jan 16 (AFP) - On the Indonesian capital's backpacker strip, the halternecks and sandals of over-sunned western travelers are but a memory. In their place, bearded chess-players sipping sweet tea and echoed greetings of "assalamu allaikum".

Welcome to Jakarta's new Little Afghanistan.

The budget hostels that line the half-kilometer-long strip known as Jalan Jaksa are currently home to dozens of Afghan asylum-seekers.

This is where their dreams of sanctuary from the now-ousted Taliban regime have brought them. Most have lost an average 4,000 dollars each to unscrupulous people-smugglers who promised them passage to Australia, then abandoned them to flimsy fishing vessels that sank or broke down off Indonesia.

Now the Afghans are trying their luck with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is determining whether they deserve the title of refugee and the guarantee of a new home.

The UNHCR has 476 refugee applications from Afghans stranded here, which it has suspended processing following the fall of the Taliban regime.

On average only one in five Afghans in Indonesia wins the status and of these, many wait months or years until the UNHCR can find a third country willing to accept them.

The International Organisation for Migration pays for their lodging in the backpacker hostels, which welcome the business after months of watching tourists desert Indonesia in droves.

With the Taliban routed after months of US-led bombardment, some have talked of abandoning the anguished search for a new country and returning home, according to UNHCR protection officer Daniel Juliadi.

But of the 10 Afghan men and boys gathered around a chessboard in the courtyard of the Wisma Delima hostel, only one wants to go home.

"The government now is good," says Muhammad Akbar, an elderly farmer from outside Kabul who has been in Indonesia for over a year and taken two failed boat trips.

"I'd like to go home. But I've been told to wait because the airport is broken and they're still repairing it."

Akbar's compatriots, however, share little of his desire.

"Now I hear the people have some problems with the mujahedin," says Muhammad Yusuf, a former police officer with the mujahedin regime that was ousted by the Taliban in 1996.

"I cannot go back."

Yusuf lost 12,000 dollars to a Malaysian people-smuggler in Indonesia who arranged a fake French passport and plane tickets to New York from Jakarta. He was caught in Hong Kong, deported back to Jakarta and arrested. He says he bribed his way out of jail for 1,000 dollars.

Mohammad Daud, a former commander with the army of communist leader Najibullah, ousted in 1992, also cites tensions among Afghanistan's many factions for not going back.

"It will be a problem for me. I am a Najibullah man," he says.

Over the past two years Daud has boarded four boats for Asutralia, all of which broke down or collapsed in high seas.

"The ships were no good. Water came in, the ships broke," he says.

He has escaped from every prison into which he was subsequently thrown by Indonesian police.

Muhammad Iqbal, a farmer from the western Afghan city of Herat, does not believe the Taliban are finished. "They've just changed their clothes," he says.

Iqbal, his wife, and son Shoeb, 12, have been granted refugee status and are waiting to be accepted by a third country.

"They have a nice future," says Muhammad Yusuf.

While Yusuf and his friends still wait, they are prey for people- smugglers who prowl the hostels tempting those fed up with waiting months and years.


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