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Footprints: Fear in border town

Updated May 07, 2017

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QUETTA: Members and supporters of the Balochistan Muttahida Mahaz protesting on Saturday outside the Afghan consulate against unprovoked firing by Afghan security forces on civilians and Frontier Corps personnel a day earlier.—Online
QUETTA: Members and supporters of the Balochistan Muttahida Mahaz protesting on Saturday outside the Afghan consulate against unprovoked firing by Afghan security forces on civilians and Frontier Corps personnel a day earlier.—Online

NEAR Jinnah Road at Quetta’s taxi stand, Naeem Ullah Khan is shouting out his destination. Three passengers were already sitting in his car, and he starts the journey as I too get in. “Is the Quetta-Chaman route closed today?” I ask. “No, it was closed yesterday, and we could not earn our livelihood,” he replies.

The three young Chaman residents travelling in this taxi are barely aware of the situation. Ashraf, dressed in traditional Afghan attire, knows only that the census team in Chaman was attacked on Friday. As we reach the top of the breathtakingly beautiful Khojak Pass near Chaman city, three army helicopters are hovering over the mountains. One of the passengers asks: “What happened? Have Pakistan and Afghanistan have started a war?”

After a small rendezvous in Chaman city, we head to the border located four kilometres from the city. The situation is tense, and there are some 3,000 army and Frontier Corps personnel. Except for security vehicles and the DSNG vans of private TV channels, there is no one at Zero Point.

Following the tragic incident on Friday, the border has been closed. “Every day, around 30,000 local Chaman traders cross the border to work in Afghanistan. They’re sitting at home these days,” says Habib Ullah Achakzai, a local trade leader in Chaman. Sitting in Qandahari bazaar of Chaman city, he explains, “Our business in Chaman in particular and Qilla Abdullah district in general is attached to Zero Point. Currently, several families I know personally cannot even earn their livelihood.”

In Balochistan, Qilla Abdullah is a predominantly Pakhtun district, and Chaman city is its headquarters. At the district commissioner’s office, only a clerk is present. The others, I am told, have left for Quetta or elsewhere.

At the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, a security official tells me: “We have asked civilians to vacate the border town as the situation is still tense. They have been moved three kilometres away.”

According to a local journalist in Chaman, Asghar Achakzai, there are around 14 towns at the border in Qilla Abdullah district. “You can hardly find civilians in these towns now,” he adds. “They have mostly gone to Chaman city, and areas around the Khojak Pass, Qilla Abdullah, and Quetta. They’re staying with relatives.”

During the half-day I spend there, Chaman is rife with rumour; the residents are beginning to get message alerts. One of them is Mohammad Nawaz, in his late twenties. “I have never been so scared in my life as I am these days,” he tells me. “Shelling has also occurred in the areas surrounding Chaman. I do not know what is wrong with us, as we [the Achakzai people] live on both side of the border. Half my family lives on the other side of the border, while we have lived here since before Pakistan was created. Gradually, slowly, we are getting cut off from each other — socially, culturally and economically. Afghan forces also predominantly belong to the Achakzai tribe, and their guns kill their own brethren on Pakistan’s side of the border. This madness has to stop.”

Sitting in his small office at Chaman’s famous Taj Road, Asghar Achakzai goes into the background of the recent crisis. He explains: “In 2014, trenches were being dug at the Pak-Afghan border to stop the infiltration of terrorists. Three bordering towns were left out of the trenches. It is said that Killi Luqman, Killi Jahangir, and Killi Haji Mohammad Rasool, though towns of Pakistan, were left out even though residents have Pakistani national identity cards and facilities.”

Currently, these border towns are on the other side of the trenches, which is why Afghan authorities are opposed to a census here. Due to this, residents say, these towns have become controversial. The Afghans attacked the census team and civilians in Killi Jahangir and Killi Luqman in an assault that continued for nearly eight hours. The tragic incident took lives of 12 Pakistanis, including two members of the security forces.

In Chaman city, schools, colleges, and other educational institutions are closed, so much so that intermediate exams have been cancelled. In the city and beyond, everyone is praying for peace. “I have not slept since yesterday due to the fear of cross-border firing in my town, Sui Karez,” says Shams Ullah. “There are 300 houses and the town is approximately 12 kilometres away from Chaman city. Afghan forces target the civilian population directly.”

According to Asghar Achakzai, “The standoff between Pakistan and Afghanistan is over the claims of each over the aforementioned border towns.”

Having paid a last visit to the Chaman Civil Hospital, an octogenarian father of six children tells me in Pushto-accented Urdu: “In the bypass area of Chaman city, I lost two of my children and the others sustained injuries due to the shelling.”

Although the weather in Chaman is cloudy, and it finally starts raining, the mood of the people remains gloomy.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2017