SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan — A humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is rapidly unraveling at the Pakistan border town of Spin Boldak.
Thousands of people – including families and disabled individuals being pushed in wheelbarrows – languish on the burning and dusty tracks. Many have been waiting days to cross the shuttered gate to the adjacent Pakistani city of Chaman, crying and begging for the chance to seek life-saving medical aid or to be reunited with loved ones.
The area has become a “military zone” over the past several days, according to the Taliban police officials who now patrol the overstuffed space. It marks a worrisome sign of brewing conflict between the two neighboring nations.
“Pakistan is creating problems. We have an understanding with Pakistan to allow Kandahar people to cross into Pakistan. In return, people from Chaman and Quetta can enter Afghanistan using National IDs,” laments Mohammad Sadiq Sabery, 28, one authority in charge of the border area in Kandahar. “They have not stood on their word. We don’t have any other solution for people, as both sides are interconnected. Kids, women, and patients are waiting in line and losing their lives from the heat.
“They (Pakistan) have a full army on their side of the border,” Sabery continues. “Pakistan is ready to fight, but the Taliban isn’t.”
Many public services – including those in the health sector – have halted operations.
The United Nations estimates that almost 10,000 refugees arrived in Pakistan since mid-August, when the Taliban – officially termed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – took over the Presidential Palace, securing control of the embattled country.
But in recent weeks, Islamabad restricted entry at the key international intersection only to Pakistani or Kandahar identification cardholders. However, as per the accounts of those stranded on the Afghan side, the gates have been sealed to almost anyone.
Trucks remain backed up for miles, their perishable goods rotting under the brutal September sun. Entire families, starved and afraid as Afghanistan deteriorates into a grave economic crisis, sleep on the mounds of earth for multiple nights – rising in the early morning to make the fruitless trek to the fortified checkpoint, only to be turned around.
Meanwhile, the Taliban is calling on Pakistan to open the border at the very least on urgent humanitarian grounds. In addition, the blockade is also said to be worsening the trade and commerce crisis, with many lamenting that they can no longer afford to put food on the table as the truck backup has continued for over two weeks.
Earlier this month, a rush toward the entry checkpoint resulted in the death of at least one person. However, those patrolling the boundary on the Afghan side claim that over the past week, several people have perished from dehydration and heatstroke and because they could not access life-saving medical care on the Chaman, Pakistan front.
A couple of hours before I arrived Wednesday afternoon, according to eyewitnesses, two more Afghans died near the Mazal gate, a less frenetic exit to the primary thoroughfare and designated for local families and special cases. Women weep beneath their blue and gray burkas. Some only possess a bedsheet to cover their faces. I realize many are doubled over in pain and frighteningly gaunt, with eyes protruding out from frail faces and hands covered in angry burns and scars. Infants cling to their mothers, no longer even crying.
“Three months ago, I went to see a doctor there (Pakistan), and the doctor has asked me to return to carry out an operation,” one woman with yellowed eyes whispers. “But they are not allowing us.”
None of the women huddled under a scrap of metal for shade are old, yet they all seem ancient, waiting for the absolution to cross. Another man comes over to tell me that he has not been allowed to traverse across to collect the body of his father-in-law, who he says died three days earlier.
Chaman-based Abdullah, 34, who shuttles small goods between the two countries, says that in the past, he typically makes two or three trips daily to make ends meet. Only he has been waiting several days to make a single journey into Pakistan.
“They are very cruel, and they punish us. They hit our children and don’t let us cross,” another weary man explains. “We face lots of difficulties, from 7 a.m. to p.m., we stand and cross and then return to Afghanistan.”
Mohammad Awlia, 33, a tradesman, concurred that the situation has become untenable and dangerous. A crowd of young and old fast forms, all desperate for the chance to share stories of anguish.
“It is very difficult; they (Pakistan) are allowing no one in. They don’t accept the Afghan National ID (Tazkira),” another sun-pinched face says coarsely. “We come and stand here morning till evening, and they give you a chance, but at the last moment. Only they disrespect you, take your money and send us back.”
Several Afghans claimed that border police on the other side had taken their documents and money – the equivalent of around $115 – only to turn them back and deny entry. However, scores of both Pakistan and Afghanistan smugglers lurk in the population-dense area – even asking us where we wanted to go – thus, it is unclear if smugglers were taking the money, authorities, or both.
“They carry out operations during the night on Afghanistan side of the border and smuggle Afghans during the night and charge 15,000 PKR ($90USD),” Yar claims. “Last night, we caught 50 to 60 people trying to go through (to Pakistan) with a bribe. They don’t allow them with ID cards, with Tazkiras. Then, when it’s night, they charge AFN 15,000.”
Nonetheless, Pakistan has contended it has by far taken the most amount of Afghan refugees over the two-decade war. According to Islamabad figures, the country is currently home to some 1.4 million registered refugees and an estimated two million more who are undocumented.
The government has repeatedly relayed that it cannot take in more refugees, expressing that it has to put its own national security interests first.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior did not respond to a request for comment.
But with the gate firmly closed for now and a clear build-up of Pakistani soldiers amassing, some fear the situation will get far worse before it gets better. The Taliban says that while they “want peace” with the international community, they also vow that they won’t be bullied or panhandled.
“They (Pakistan) beat and whack people. They haven’t stood on their promise from day one,” Sabery asserts. “Afghan people are in a very difficult situation.”
Ultimately, the men report to the big boss in Kabul – namely the Minister of Interior, Sirajuddin Haqqani, a designated terrorist wanted by the US government. They are awaiting his order to tackle the issue, which is an apparent departure from the general assertion that Pakistan and the Taliban have long been close partners.
“He (Haqqani) is waiting for the right time. He knows the situation,” Sabery adds. “Pakistan thinks it is stronger than Afghanistan.”