San Jose Mercury News,
November 5, 2001
Despite Adversity, Life Goes On
Afghan route to Pakistan means business for locals
By KARL SCHOENBERGER,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.