Immigrants fleeing Afghanistan find themselves at smugglers’ mercy

Updated May 18, 2019

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“Had we known English, we wouldn’t be here?” immigrant Bari asks. — AFP/File
“Had we known English, we wouldn’t be here?” immigrant Bari asks. — AFP/File
The Afghan immigrants rest at a spot in the mountainous area of Jodar.—Photo by writer
The Afghan immigrants rest at a spot in the mountainous area of Jodar.—Photo by writer

THE black mountains of Jodar, in the western corner of Balochistan, appear calm as small, white patches of clouds dot the blue sky.

Other than the tiny village of the Siyani Baloch tribe, there are no human settlements in these mountains for mile upon mile. The region sits near the Pakistan-Iran border.

Unlike the Pakistan side, the Iranian side of the border is militarised and there are check-points at the top of the giant mountains. At some places, one cannot make out whether one is in Pakistan or Iran. Even then donkeys crossing into Iran from Pakistan are shot dead.

I am headed to these mountains to meet a group of Afghan immigrants in a treacherous region. One threat is from Iranian security personnel who intrude into the Pakistan side to arrest Afghan immigrants before they can enter Iran.

Jodar is situated in Washuk, Balochistan’s poorest district. There are three tehsils in this district, which has a population of 176, 206. There is no cellular network in this remote area.

On the night of May 12, a group of 26 Afghan immigrants was brought to Jodar in a Toyota pick-up. All of them, including women and children, were crammed into the pick-up in Duk area, situated on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

“Can anyone speak English?” I ask them. They laugh and call me “Englisi” in Farsi. My Baloch driver, who is good at Farsi, helps me communicate with them.

“Had we known English, we wouldn’t be here?” immigrant Bari retorts.

Bari, who is wearing a white Talibi cap, sits with us to chat about the ordeal they [immigrants] face. “For over the past two days, we have been sitting and sleeping here without water and food!” he says. “It took almost a month to come over here from Kabul, Afghanistan.”

According to Bari, their agent is expected to meet them in the evening. He has advised the group to stay at the spot. “At this point, we are unsure whether or not we have been ditched. We are still hopeful we will reach our destination,” says Bari.

Two days ago, the immigrant group went to a Khwabgah (rest house) in Mashkhel tehsil of Washuk. According to the driver of a vehicle in Mashkhel, there are around 30 Khwabgahs in Mashkhel’s vicinity.

“Everything in these Khawabgahs is quite expensive,” says Ali, recalling their stay in Mashkel. “A small loaf of bread costs Rs100. We are short of money now to buy anything.”

Bari and the other 25 Afghans have been travelling for over 30 days now. They have lost track of the date and time.

“Afghanistan is not going to be peaceful in future. There is war, unemployment and various hardships there,” says Bari. “The coming days will be more painful for our people. This is why we are on the move.”

Their group comprises women and children as well. In the month of Ramazan, they are short of water. Jamal, an Uzbek, stands up and points at my bottle of hot water. “Please let me have it,” he pleads.

“Our lives are at stake. We are at the mercy of smugglers,” he says, putting the empty bottle back in front of me. “These smugglers have been paid to take care of us, but they are nowhere to be seen,” worries Jamal.

Besides the western parts of Balochistan, Afghans are smuggled out from other routes as well.

In April 2009, an abandoned container was found near Hazarganji area of Quetta with over 100 Afghan nationals (Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras). As Hazarganji is a transit point, shopkeepers and drivers soon learnt about it and informed police.

They brought the container to Bolan Medical Complex, where 50 Afghans were pronounced dead.

According to media reports, the container had come from the Chaman border, in northern Balochistan. It was also reported that the container was brought to Hazarganji because agents were unable to reach Iran after frequent attempts,.

A driver who transports Afghans between Duk and Mashkhel on a Zamyad vehicle recalls his experience. “Thieves mushroom on this perilous route,” he says. “Once I was asked to take 40 Afghans to Mashkhel. We were mugged thrice before reaching Mashkhel.”

Leaning against the rock, immigrant Jamal sums up the sense of resignation: “We are born to suffer.”

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2019