Disorder and hardship along Afghan border

Seeking safety, profits, refugees and smugglers cross into Pakistan

`There is nothing here'

War On Terrorism

The World

October 08, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CHAMAN, Pakistan - A crumbling brick wall with an advertisement for English lessons taped to it marks this border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan. From here, a Pakistani border guard will allow you to peek over the wall into one of the most isolated countries in the world.

From here, beyond the jumble of commercial trucks, donkey carts and motorcycles waiting at the crossing, this corner of Afghanistan is a flat desert landscape clouded in dust and haze.

Afghans crossing into Pakistan here, like 25-year-old Abdul Bari, appeared almost too proud to disclose much more about life inside their country in the hours before the United States launched its air attack yesterday.

"We are not worried or afraid about any attack. It is a very relaxed environment in Afghanistan," said Bari, who arrived in Chaman last week to continue his studies at an Islamic school. But Bari acknowledged that some people from his village of Boldak, near the Taliban regime's stronghold of Kandahar, had been moving their families to safety in the countryside or into Pakistan.

United Nations officials say as many as 7.5 million Afghans, suffering after decades of war, drought and now the prospect of a winter on the run, may need humanitarian assistance in the weeks ahead.

But Bari's friend, Abdul Wali, rejected such accounts of his country.

"Our government is working A-1, and there is no food deficiency," Walid said. "We are having good food, so it would be better if the foreigners did not disturb us."

Afghans defiant

An elderly Afghan man straddling a motorcycle bristled at the suggestion that his country would need to depend on outside assistance. "If all we have is a half a loaf of bread, we would prefer to eat that half loaf than a full loaf given by somebody else," said Haji Tuwakal Achakzai, a cross-border trader also from Boldak.

Such tough-mindedness in the face of war befits the Afghans who crisscross this fiercely independent border region.

Chaman sits on the Pakistan-Afghanistan boundary that was drawn in 1893 by Sir Mortimer Durand of Britain. The Durand Line divided Pashtun and Baluch tribes living in Afghanistan from those living in what is now Pakistan. Afghanistan fought for years to try to win self-determination for its Pashtun and Baluch brothers living in Pakistan, creating tension with the Pakistani government and a border known for unruliness.

This border post in recent weeks served as little more than a stage set. Only Afghans with proper visas and paperwork have bothered to cross here. No fences or border markers stand to the north or south of the official checkpoint. Well-worn paths, bustling with the foot traffic of border jumpers, curve around on either side within plain view of the police.

Smuggling a way of life

The paths are testimony to the huge smuggling industry. Chaman is a smuggling hub where one can buy nearly anything: televisions, electronics and computers to silk, cigarettes, luxury soap and shampoo. Locals say tribal warlords have built homes that span the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, allowing goods to be smuggled in the front door and out the back without hassle or the expense of paying customs duties.

"What else are we supposed to do for a living? Look around, do you see any factories and orchards? There is nothing here," said an Afghan smuggler who had slipped across the border a few days ago with two bundles of Japanese silk.

From Chaman, the smuggler said, he planned to hitchhike into Quetta, Pakistan, an oasis city about 85 miles away, where he hoped to earn 400 rupees, about $6.25, for the delivery, minus bribes for police along the way.

Fleeing to border

Between Sept. 11 and last night, Chaman had become better known as a crossing point for humans than for televisions or silk. Pakistan had sealed its borders to avoid adding to the more than 2 million Afghan refugees already in the country. But the refugees continued to trickle across.

Most head for Quetta, a three-hour drive or two-day walk through some of the most unforgiving country in Pakistan. From Chaman, the road to Quetta climbs the jagged Khojak Mountains. Defensive pillboxes abandoned by the British in the 19th century dot the mountains. The road winds down into a valley so parched - it hasn't rained in four years - that the land is nearly white. Abandoned mud brick villages line the roadside; the only industry visible for miles is that of brickmakers, whose ovens belch out black plumes of smoke.

"I came with my family. It was difficult," said Abdul (he has no last name), who sneaked across the border with 24 family members after fleeing Kandahar two weeks ago. "If you don't have money in your pocket and you have to cross that distance, it is difficult."

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