Return to Mercury

San Jose Mercury News, November 5, 2001

 Despite Adversity, Life Goes On
Afghan route to Pakistan means business for locals


CHAMAN, Pakistan Burly and bearded in a vest and turban of fine quality, Abdul Hazam struts across the no man's land that separates Afghanistan and its southern neighbor, passing though the gate to the Pakistani side with a perfunctory nod to an immigration officer, who seems to know him by sight.

Hazam, an Afghan exile who imports soybeans from Afghanistan, steps casually into a riot of activity at the Chaman border crossing. It is a festive scene of two-way commercial traffic, bursting across a border that's oblivious to the disastrous war in Afghanistan.

The region might be in deep distress, and a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions is brewing with untold numbers of displaced people inside Afghanistan. But life goes on along the Kandahar Road. The road links the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar to the provincial Pakistani city of Quetta to the south, and it joins an elaborate network of business dealings among the ethnic Pashtun clans that populate both sides of the border.

"We're the same people, just like family," said Hazam, who fled Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded 22 years ago. He is returning from a visit with relatives in the southwestern province of Helmand, he said, where he also did a little business. "The American bombing is no problem for my business, but it is causing the people to rally together and support the Taliban."

While a few fresh refugees peer mournfully over the barbed-wire fence toward an elusive asylum in Pakistan, the gate swings open for a large truck that is overloaded with boxes of Kandahari grapes. The truck, painted in the local fashion of clashing rainbow designs and festooned with garish chrome and little tinkering chains, rumbles down the road on its way to markets in Pakistan.

An old man with a white beard who had been crouching surreptitiously behind the gate darts through the opening to join the throng of foot traffic. Border guards armed with AK-47 automatic rifles watch the scene lazily next to a cluster of ambulances prepared to take bombing victims to hospitals in Quetta.

Dust storm rises

Suddenly, a dust storm rises out of nowhere and blows furiously, darkening the sky and whipping gritty dirt in the air. People shout and cover themselves with scarves until quiet returns about 30 seconds later. Immediately, the bustle resumes, as if nothing unusual had happened. Hazam steps across the busy road to hail a taxi home.

Down the road in Quetta, Pashtun merchants in the city's marketplaces say they rely on the commercial trucks that travel Kandahar Road to deliver fruit and nuts from Afghan farmers. They haven't noticed any problems with the supply. Prices are stable despite the American bombing.

Aslam Agha, a commission agent for a trading company in Quetta's bustling Maizal Chowk bazaar, said he exports sugar, wheat, rice and oil to Kandahar and imports dried fruit and fresh mangoes and pomegranates.

"Our business is very good," Agha said as he passed out wads of worn thousand-rupee notes to subcontractors jammed into his small office. "We haven't experienced any problems with transportation."

Agha added, however, that two of his trucks had been caught in a bombing raid, their drivers killed. He shrugged it off as the cost of doing business. Then he raised his voice and with fire in his eyes intoned: "In the past, we Afghans were friends with the Americans. Now we are enemies." Agha and his business associates broke into a chant of "down with Bush, down with America," smiling and laughing while mugging for a photographer.

Ancient trade route

The border town of Chaman is the midpoint of Kandahar Road, an ancient trade route that snakes some 100 miles across desert landscapes and rugged mountain terrain from Quetta to Kandahar. It's a difficult journey of seven hours or more by automobile or jeep and 10 hours or more by one of those colorful trucks.

Cross-border commerce has thrived along this rutted and narrow road for the past two decades as waves of Afghan refugees fled south from the Soviet invasion and civil war. The 2 1/2-hour drive between Quetta and Chaman is a visual feast. The harsh desert environment -- similar to the landscape on the Afghan side of the border -- conceals a surprising wealth of human habitation, from clusters of mud huts around a small oasis of scrawny apple trees on the horizon to vast tracts of roadside orchards, fed by deep wells.

Traffic streams down the road, with cars and jeeps honking and recklessly passing lumbering trucks and buses. Then it slows to a halt for speed bumps at security checkpoints, where provincial police yawn and dirty-faced children tap on car windows for baksheesh. A 10-rupee note will suffice, but the driver has to step on the gas before a gang of new beggars appears.

The road plods through main street bazaars in little towns that dot the route, congested by donkey carts and bicycles and lined with brick-hovel stores that sell used tires, building materials and Pepsi.

Before reaching Chaman, the road ascends precipitously up hairpin turns without guardrails to the 8,000-foot high Khojak Pass, where the view opens to reveal the arid plain that leads to Afghanistan in the distance.

The highway also is host to trafficking in human misery.

At the border, an estimated 3,000 Afghan refugees have been bottled up in makeshift camps erected by the Taliban's frontier guards in Spin Buldak, an Afghan town just out of sight of the Chaman side of no man's land.

Their journey was cut short after the Pakistani government cracked down on border crossings two weeks ago. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is concerned about deteriorating health conditions in those desert camps, which reportedly lack water, proper sanitation and adequate food.

The UNHCR lost the ability to monitor conditions there early Wednesday morning when armed Taliban forces occupied the agency's field office in Spin Buldak. Local Afghan employees didn't dare approach the compound. (Taliban troops also have been occupying the agency's office in Kandahar at night to escape the bombing, a spokesman for the agency says.)

Also on Wednesday morning, Pakistani police jacked up tensions at the border by erecting signs warning refugees, in three languages, to turn back from the agency's Killi Faizo emergency staging area on the south side of the barbed wire.

This temporary camp has been assisting new arrivals of women, children and the elderly, supposedly exceptions to Pakistan's policy of closing its border to Afghan refugees. The government has not approved permanent UNHCR camps along the border, and on Wednesday it refused to allow new registrations of refugees at Killi Faizo.

In its first 10 days of operation, the camp's population has swelled to more than 2,000 people housed in neat rows of dusty white tents. Fatid Taba, a UNHCR staffer coordinating operations at Killi Faizo, said the agency's negotiations with the government to expand the camp or erect a new one elsewhere were not going well. "We continue to appeal to the government tolet in people who fear for their lives," she said.

About 55 new refugees got into the camp Wednesday, ignoring the warning signs. Police then ejected them from the tent city.

The newcomers included a 60-year-old man from Kabul who sobbed inconsolably during his intake interview, explaining that he had lost his entire family to a bombing strike and had no one to help him, said Yusuf Hassan, a UNHCR spokesman.

Treating the sick

Back in Quetta, the city's hospitals were starting to see a gradual stream of bombing victims, ferried by Afghan taxi along the Kandahar Road to the border and transferred to ambulances at Chaman for the bumpy ride to medical aid.

At the end of the road, a visit to a dingy ward at the Al-Khidmat Hospital completes the journey.

One-year-old Hamid Ullah sits dazed on a bed, his head wrapped in white bandages. On the bed to his right, his mother, who has a broken arm, is curled up in a fetal position, completely veiled beneath a blanket. To his left, his 10-year-old sister, Khanomu, watches intently from her bed. She cannot answer a reporter's questions, a nurse explains, because she lost her hearing in a bomb blast that also killed 20 members of her family of farmers on Oct. 21.

The children's uncle, who sits on the boy's bed, said he thinks it was a cruise missile that destroyed the house in the farming village where the family took shelter that night, not far from a Taliban military installation in Oruzgan Province, a likely hiding place of Osama bin Laden just north of Kandahar. The nurse unwraps a plastic bag to display the small pieces of shrapnel that surgeons removed from Hamid's fractured little skull.

It's but another day of another war in Afghanistan.