Badaber, Pakistan. -- Zabhullah Bitab doesn't remember much of life before his family came 13 years ago to this dusty, sprawling refugee camp in northwestern Pakistan.
Still, the energetic 15-year-old says he would like to go back across the arid mountains to his native Afghanistan to pursue his goal of becoming a doctor. Or an architect.
"We want to work," he says of the Badaber refugees. "I'd like to become a doctor, but we haven't the money for this. . . . I want to go to school. I want to live in the city."
Zabhullah's family, however, like the estimated three million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan -- mostly in and around Peshawar -- probably will not go back any time soon, if at all.
Technically, the war in Afghanistan is over. U.S. military aid, which included weapons from artillery to shoulder-launched Stinger missiles, provided to the Afghan resistance fighters known as mujahedeen officially stopped Jan. 1, as did the flow of Russian arms to the Najibullah government in Kabul.
Remaining are more than six million displaced Afghans -- by far the largest refugee population in the world -- who are being held hostage by a complicated set of political and economic conditions created by more than 12 years of war.
They are, in essence, exiles either unable or unwilling to go home, according to interviews with refugees, Peshawar merchants, government officials, relief workers and political experts.
"It's a difficult place to go back to -- there's nothing to go back to," concedes one Bush administration official, who nonetheless insists the "great bulk" of the refugees eventually will return.
The United States, having fueled the war to the tune of billions of dollars in weapons and humanitarian aid for the mujahedeen, has contributed another $1.2 billion in refugee relief and recently began channeling millions of dollars to the United Nations appeal for Afghan repatriation.
Still, the obstacles for refugees to return are myriad. They are loath to return to rule by the same leftist regime Islamic forces have been trying to topple since 1979. There is warring among the seven mujahedeen factions. And there are 20 million mines, by U.S. estimates, still embedded in the country.
The exiles, simply put, "are stuck," says Shahab Zaman, the refugee liaison officer for Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, home to at least 2.2 million people in 258 camps. "It's not that they do not want to go back," Mr. Zaman says. "There are genuine reasons."
As Mohammed Naeem Khan, the province's refugee protocol officer, says: "A bullet from a Soviet gun or an Afghan gun will kill you the same way."
Afghanistan has been decimated by the war. More than two-thirds of the infrastructure including agriculture, housing and roads was destroyed, 1.5 million people were killed, and a third of the population fled. Yet some refugees like Zabhullah still hope to cross the border and find one, clear shot at a better life.
"It's very hard," he says of Badaber.
Zabhullah's uncle supports the extended family -- he and eight others live in a small, mud house while nearby dwellings house his grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins -- with proceeds from a small variety store set up along a pell-mell commercial strip in the camp.
"We haven't money; we haven't salary," Zabhullah says, explaining that his father has worked for one of the Afghan resistance groups without pay for a year.
Zabhullah says his family would return if Dr. Najibullah is overthrown and Afghanistan is made "free." But until then, they have little reason to give up a stable, if limited and difficult, existence for a highly precarious situation.
Other Afghans, like the shopkeepers who sell everything from cauliflower to black U.S. Army boots in the tiny, crowded stalls that line Peshawar's streets, are hesitant to give up the livelihoods they have carved out in Pakistan for a nomadic existence in the scrubby hillsides back home.
"If you go back to Afghanistan, the government press-gangs you into the army," said one shopkeeper. Asked why he would not join one of the seven resistance factions to avoid that fate, he replied, "If I did that, I'd be living out on the plains. There's no telling where the next meal comes from.
"We're here because our brothers are fighting," he said. "Somebody has to look after the children and the wives."
One shopkeeper, a member of the Shinwari tribe who travels to Kabul twice a month to get the ice-cream makers, televisions and other goods he sells in Peshawar's smugglers' market, says some mujahedeen have turned into mountain bandits, posing threats of robbery and extortion to those who would cross the border.
Indeed, Peshawar is rife with stories of Afghans who have been robbed en route to Kabul for business or to bring money to the families they left behind for work in Pakistan.
To the Shinwari merchant, the refugees' condition is clear: they should go back, because they are straining resources in Pakistan and creating more business competition, but will not.
"They are working here," he reasoned. "They have homes. They can get fruit, vegetables; there is meat."
While Pakistan clearly hopes most of the refugees will ultimately leave, officials are deeply worried that international concern over the Afghans' plight is waning due to an onslaught of new international crises such as the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the exodus of Iraq's Kurds after the Persian Gulf war.
Struggling with its own poverty and development problems, Pakistan, which by all accounts has done a good job of caring for a huge refugee population, fears it will be forever supporting the displaced Afghans. Another two million refugees are in Iran; the remaining one million is scattered throughout the world.
Adding to Pakistan's worry is the fact that international aid to the Afghans has slacked off, exacerbating the economic pressure while creating worsening conditions in the camps.
The basic food baskets the refugees receive, for example, used to contain six or seven different items including wheat, milk and cooking oil. But in recent months, they have been filled with little more than wheat, according to government and relief workers.
"Unfortunately, people are forgetting about Afghanistan; the world's moved on to other things," says an official of the Bush administration. "We have a moral responsibility to help them. We were sending weapons to them."
Meanwhile, life in Badaber, a six-camp compound that is home to more than 57,000 Afghans, drags on.
In one corner of the camp, schoolboys sit cross-legged on the ground, listening to the lessons their teachers scrawl on blackboards in makeshift, outdoor classrooms.
Another cordoned-off area serves as one of two medical clinics that provide basic health care and education to nearly 37,000 people. Mothers, smiling shyly at female visitors with discolored teeth that betray years of neglect, crowd onto cold stone floors with hoards of dirty, coughing children, waiting their turns for check-ups during flu season.
Within the rosy-brown mud walls of homes that form a crude maze through the camp, however, there is little self-pity.
The small Bitab home is immaculate and cheerful, with light bulbs shaded and garnished by mobiles created from string and hundreds of multi-colored, intricately cut cardboard pieces.
More telling are the walls, which are lined with cloth sheets depicting mines, given by relief agencies to teach the refugees to identify explosives. Zabhullah's mother has embroidered the cloth with a bright flower pattern that is an Afghan hallmark. "If we go to Afghanistan, [they are] to understand what kinds of bombs there are there," her son states flatly.
While these refugees are not generally facing life-threatening starvation or disease, conditions are far from ideal. The Badaber refugees are also far better off than others in Pakistan's remote tribal regions, who have no chance of earning income by working in cities like Peshawar.
Indeed, U.S. officials insist difficult conditions in the camps, combined with intense Afghan nationalism and a fear of losing their property, may push many of the exiles to return as soon as a political settlement appears closer. They estimate about 200,000 people have already returned.
In the best scenario, the warring factions will resolve their differences this year and knock out Dr. Najibullah, who will be considerably weakened by a loss of support from a defunct Soviet Union now mired in its own economic upheaval. At the time the Soviets pulled out in February 1989, supporters of the mujahedeen estimated Soviet aid as at least $300 million a month.
But the politics of Afghanistan has always defied assessment. As Mary Spencer-Morin, executive director of the Committee for a Free Afghanistan, recalls of war's early years: "We had a contest as to when Kabul would fall. We thought it would be 10 months" after the Soviet pullout -- now two years ago.
A more realistic view is offered by a Baltimore-based relief group with a lengthy history of involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan: As long as the refugees receive even minimal aid, there is little to compel them home. "If you keep too much money on one side of the border, you perpetuate the situation," says Jennifer Habte, spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services.
More pessimistic still are the Pakistanis, who remain keenly interested in Afghan repatriation and anxious that it will take many years for a meaningful opening to appear.
"Unless these seven groups come to a decision, I don't think there is going to be a solution," says Mr. Zaman, "even if the Americans or the Russians or the Pakistanis impose it on them."
Melissa Robinson is a Washington correspondent for the Scripps League newspapers.