The chatter of machine gunfire is unmistakable.
As I laid in my bed in eastern Afghanistan listening intently and trying to calculate how far away the fighting was, my heart raced and my mind went forensically over our security procedures. Thankfully the battle was short and sharp, and soon silence once again engulfed the night. Eventually I fell asleep.
The next morning, I brought up the shooting with my Save the Children colleagues, thinking it would be the talk of the town. But they were unfazed. Gun fire is normal here, they told me. It happens all the time.
I was in Jalalabad in Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan to the east, and outside the city centre, is one of the most unstable parts of the country. The fighting was between the Afghan army and one of the armed groups in the area, who are gearing up for more battles now that spring is here and the snow is melting.
Frighteningly, Nangarhar and all its volatility, also forms the heart of a new and rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis.
A sudden tightening of visa restrictions by Pakistani authorities last year saw more than 600,000 Afghans return from Pakistan in just a few months, and up to one million more are expected in 2017. About three quarters have settled in Nangarhar, with its temperate climate and proximity to the border.
Unsurprisingly, the province is struggling to cope with the massive influx, with the cost of living soaring, unemployment growing and schools and hospitals overwhelmed.
Nangarhar is nearing breaking point, and yet the situation appears set to only get worse.
For those who’ve already returned, life is harsh, with families commonly living in makeshift tents without running water and enough food to eat. The risk of attack or recruitment by armed groups, who prey on the desperate and vulnerable, is also very real.
I interviewed several returnees living in Jalalabad, a bustling city on the banks of the Kabul River, surrounded by fertile lands and orange groves. Almost all had been living in Pakistan for more than 30 years when they were told they must leave. They owned businesses in Pakistan, had homes and their children were born and went to school there.
Then suddenly their lives were uprooted and they returned to a largely foreign land, where most have few ties to community, no documentation and little prospect of finding work.
On the outskirts of the city in a dusty compound shared by six returnee families, I met Jawid, a bright and confident 14 year old boy.
When I asked him about school in Pakistan, he proudly showed me his report card. He was in the fourth grade when they left, and had good grades. He wants to become a doctor or school principal one day. However, like nearly 200,000 returnee children, or about 50 percent, Jawid is out of school now.
“I feel really guilty inside, and wonder how I can make it so my children are going to school and getting an education,” Jawid’s father said.
“[However], I can’t afford to enroll my children in school. I can’t even buy them school materials. They are the bread winners, working on the street, making money to survive and I am searching for a job but there is no luck.”
Instead of walking to school like other children, Jawid walks the streets collecting rubbish to sell or burn for cooking. Each morning he scours the local market, and in the afternoon he rummages along the streets near his home.
He cannot hide his anguish when asked about being out of school.
“When I am collecting garbage I feel really sad and wonder why I’m working at this age when I should be going to school,” he told me.
“It is my time to get an education not to work. I feel like I’m getting left behind from education and studying.” Not only does school improve Jawid’s prospects for the future, but it provides safety and protection from armed groups like those I heard fighting on the streets of Nangarhar late at night.
It was heartbreaking to hear Jawid’s story, but sadly it is all too common.
With the sun shining here in Afghanistan and the start of the traditional fighting season upon us, it is time for international donors to step up their efforts to support education for returnee children.
Last year at the World Humanitarian Summit and the UN General Assembly, Member States agreed that education for refugees and returnees is a priority.
These commitments need to translate into concrete actions so that children like Jawid do not fall permanently out of the education system after becoming displaced.