It is the sixth day of Ramazan in the month of May. Khalo Mama, 26, who wants to be called only by this nickname, welcomes me to the Malesha square of Dalbandin, the headquarters of district Chagai. He is attired in shabby red clothes and rides an old Honda CD-70 motorbike.
Khalo has recently become an oil smuggler. His skin has turned dark from exposure to the sun over the months. There are black spots on his face. But he is not bothered by this. He just wants to run his household.
He lives in Dalbandin with his mother and two siblings. Plain, deserted, dusty and set against a mountainous backdrop, Dalbandin is situated some 340 kilometres from Quetta. In the west, Chagai makes a triangular border with Iran, and in the north, with Afghanistan. The multibillion-dollar projects of Reko Diq and Saindak are situated in the same district.
Despite being known as the museum of minerals in Balochistan, there is gross unemployment and poverty in the area. Although the largest district in the country in terms of area, Chagai is sparsely populated with an official population of only about 226,000. Due to unemployment, Baloch youth, like Khalo, go to the Pakistan-Iran border, in the neighbouring Washuk district, to bring back Iranian oil and diesel. The majority of oil smugglers hail from Dalbandin.
Braving dust, thirst and robbers on the trail with the oil and diesel smugglers of Balochistan
In the past, Khalo was rich. He once had a popular Facebook page, where he posted pictures of himself modelling clothes and hairstyles. But following the death of his father, he could not manage the family business his father left behind. Drowning in debt, he eventually had to close it down.
Although he possesses a BA (Bachelor of Arts), and applied for full-time work, Khalo remained jobless. And then, like other Baloch youngsters of his town, he became an oil smuggler. “I am now a chhotu (sidekick),” he tells me light-heartedly, “My ustad, Imran, is five years younger than me.” Ustad is the one who drives the vehicle.
We drive to Imran’s house on Khalo’s motorbike, which belonged to his father. “Other than this motorbike, there is nothing left behind that still reminds me of my father,” he tells me with his intermittent stutter.
But little Ustad Imran is in the bazaar, and he is in a hurry. He tells Khalo on the phone to come to Raheem’s* garage, situated in the heart of the bazaar. At the garage, a convoy of seven Zamyad (called Zambad by the locals) pick-up trucks is ready to leave for Jodar. And we have to join them in the bypass area of Dalbandin.
These pick-up vehicles are manufactured by Zamyad Co. in Tehran. These are non-custom paid vehicles. As they are unregistered, there is no official count of their numbers. There are roughly thousands of Zamyad vehicles in Balochistan, each costing lakhs. An old Zamyad can be bought for around 200,000 rupees; for a new one, the price can go up to more than a million. These vehicles are solely used for oil and diesel smuggling in Balochistan, and loaded with blue barrels in the back, they can be easily spotted across the province.
Imran is a teenager. He is trying to grow a beard and moustache to look older — and somewhat failing in the attempt. Last year, he matriculated but, instead of continuing his studies, he has become a driver to smuggle Iranian oil. Dressed in black and smelling of oil, he asks me to sit next to him inside the truck cab and to wrap a white chador around my face. Nobody should recognise me in Dalbandin.
After checking the tyres, Khalo climbs in next to me. We then leave for the Dalbandin bypass. Already, our convoy of six Zamyads is awaiting our arrival.
Khalo tells me they usually travel in a convoy comprising of six or seven Zamyads. All these vehicles belong to one arbab (the owner of the vehicles) who is based in Dalbandin and has more than 20 vehicles. The arbab are Baloch on both sides of the Pak-Iran border who are in direct contact with each other. When the Pakistani arbab receives an order through his Iranian counterpart, he sends his Zamyads to the border. The Pakistani arbab can make around 40,000 rupees off one truckful of oil or diesel.
Besides, Khalo says, while lowering the volume of an Urdu song playing on the pick-up’s stereo, that they travel together due to the fear of robbers, as insurance against vehicles breaking down, and the non-existence of water in this the remotest part of the province.
It is noon, and we commence the journey on main London Road — its unexpected name rooted in the fact that the road connects Pakistan to London through Quetta, Chaghi and Iran. There is no traffic at all as it is Ramazan. Despite the small patches of white clouds gathering in the sky, the temperature soars to around 40 degrees Celsius. The Gorich, the wind which blows from north to south, further worsens it. If I roll down the Zamyad’s window, the wind singes my face and slaps it hard. But if I don’t roll it down, without air-conditioning, it is hotter inside the Zamyad. As advised, I wrap the chador around my face and leave the window open.
Security personnel at the Frontier Corps (FC) and levies check-posts do not stop these drivers. “Our business is somewhat unofficially recognised,” Khalo says, waving his hand at the FC guards.
After covering 60 kilometres on London Road, we reach a tiny town called Yakmuch, dotted with date trees, that London Road cuts across. This is our first stop. It has a few shops, hotels and petrol pumps.
Due to unemployment, Baloch youth, like Khalo, go to the Pakistan-Iran border, in the neighbouring Washuk district, to bring back Iranian oil and diesel. The majority of oil smugglers hail from Dalbandin.
Some of the elderly grey-bearded drivers are fasting, while most of the youngsters like Khalo and Imran are not. So they buy pakorras and sherbet for iftari. “Why fast when there is nothing to eat and drink,” exclaims Khalo, who used to fast before becoming a smuggler. “We now fast all year round anyway.”
Back on London Road, we drive 59 more kilometres to Gat, which lies some 52 kilometres away from Naukundi town. From there onwards, we exit London Road and head west. The entire route is now unpaved right up to Jodar; it zigzags for roughly 200 kilometres. “You can only be familiar with these dusty, kutcha and zigzag routes if you are a driver,” Imran says about the experience of driving in this desolate and vast area, replete with dangers and threats.
Iftari in the dusty wind
After two and a half hour’s drive, we reach our second stop: Katagar, a place which seems to exist only in name. This ghost town is situated in Washuk district, another district that borders Iran. It lies between Mashkhel and Jodar. Other than the Tehsil Mashkhel of Washuk district, there is no human settlement for miles and miles. But ironically, it has a natural water spring. Most of us have finished the water we brought along.
“Do people live in Katagar?” I ask Khalo. “No,” he replies, and points at a dilapidated hut made up of white sacks of plastic. “That was the Uzbeki hotel. Besides the hotel, there is no human settlement.”
This hotel, now closed for Ramazan, is a resting place for human traffickers. En route to Iran, Afghan immigrants often lodge at the hotel. Sometimes Zamyad drivers also stop here for tea and rest. Tea and water are charged double the normal rate here, because they are unavailable anywhere else in the area.
The dusty wind is becoming harsher. It becomes so blustery that it is hard to see the rest of our convoy. The drivers turn on the vehicles’ headlights. Finally, we have to stop and wait for the wind to abate. But it continues to blow with great intensity and we remain confined inside the Zamyads for some time.
Sundown is approaching. Those fasting climb up their vehicles, on to the barrels. They raise their hands in prayer. There is no call to prayers as there is no mosque in this no man’s land. There is only a glass of sherbet to break the fast.
After a five-minute iftari, everyone piles back into the Zamyads. One of the men comes to each truck, knocking on the windows one by one to pass on a message: we have to reach Jodar, no matter how dusty the wind is.
There is nothing visible around us for half an hour. I think to myself: what if someone meets an accident? Will he survive? I think not.
Fortunately, a rainshower clears the stormy wind. The lights at the Iranian security check-posts are visible now a few kilometres away from our route. “These security check-posts are situated across the border,” Khalo tells me, putting a pinch of snuff into his mouth. “Unlike ours, the Iranian border is militarised and walled in some places.”
After travelling for around 300 kilometres, we arrive at the Jodar check-post. It is a tiny building with a few rooms. “FC Wing 73” is inscribed on its wall, referring to the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC). Adjacent to it, there is a helipad. But Khalo and Imran have never seen a helicopter land here.
Already, there is a long queue of Zamyads which continues to grow overnight. From 6 am to 9 am, these Zamyads are allowed to enter Jodar for only three hours. “A few months back, the FC men would take 4,000 rupees from each Zamyad before allowing them to enter Jodar,” says Imran while stretching out a mat beside his truck. “The FC intelligence got wind of it, we were told. After that, the FC men were strictly prohibited from taking money from Zamyads, which is why they now keep us waiting the whole day at the check-post.”
There is also another route these Zamyads follow surreptitiously to enter Jodar, without turning on the headlights of their vehicles in the darkness. Beside the nearby Iranian check-posts, there is an FC cruiser patrolling the route. If a driver gets caught by the FC cruiser, he can be beaten up violently.
Jodar is in complete darkness now. Suddenly there is some commotion around one of the Zamyads. An FC Toyota Land Cruiser pick-up is chasing it for breaking the line. When I ask Khalo, he tells me a Zamyad has dared to cross into Jodar without queuing up at the check-post. “This happens every time I visit. There are some impatient and bold drivers who think they can dodge the FC. Some succeed. Some get caught. The FC confiscates their Zamyads sometimes, after beating up the drivers with whatever is in their hands.”
Late at night, we are in three groups. All of us eat together from three separate pots. There are no plates. “We paid Murad* the day before coming to Jodar,” Khalo tells me. “He usually cooks at his home and brings food to Jodar.
Other than the pick-up trucks, there is nothing else around. Either the sky or the Zamyad is your roof. Khalo shares his blanket with me. But before I fall sleep, it starts raining, followed by thunder and lightning the whole night. All of us flee back to our trucks, without sleep.
Khalo wakes me up by six in the morning. “The FC has opened the post. If we are late, we will have to wait for one more day here to enter it tomorrow after six,” he informs me.
After showing our national identity cards one by one, we are finally at the main border point of Jodar.
Jodar, the place in the middle of nowhere
Jodar is a town situated at the border of Pakistan and Iran. There is only one village on the Pakistani side of the border, inhabited by a Baloch tribe called Siyani. The mammoth Jodar mountains are black and, in some places, they are separated by an unending dried riverbed of the Jodar River. Rainwater collects in the same riverbed, which is a source of water for humans and animals alike.
From the Jodar border point, oil is smuggled to the entire Balochistan province, parts of Karachi, parts of southern Punjab and parts of Afghanistan. This is one of the three key points used by Iran and Pakistan to smuggle oil and diesel. The arbabs arrange sale of oil in Balochistan and elsewhere in the country and collect the payments.
After being allowed through by the FC, we are headed directly to Ashraf’s gidaan (hut/thatched) type hotel. Hundreds of men throng the hotel for lunch and breakfast every day. Today, Ashraf, the owner, is fasting. He asks the drivers and their companions to make tea themselves, but he has to be paid before that: 50 rupees for a pot of tea. Imran hands him the cash, and Khalo puts a pot on the stove to make tea for us. “This is our breakfast,” Khalo says in jest. “You pay in advance and make tea yourself.”
A little after 9 am, I am sitting on a mountainpeak. It was hit in the past by an Iranian mortar. The mortar created a white spot at the top of the black mountain. Iran continuously fires mortars into the bordering towns of Balochistan. Jodar is one of those towns.
At the main border point of Jodar, there are Zamyad vehicles all around. From the mountaintop, these vehicles look like crawling ants. From Damag point, oil and diesel is being brought on Iranian pick-up vehicles and motorbikes. Each pick-up carries in the back a plastic tank filled with oil or diesel. The drivers tell me that each plastic tank carries between 37 to 45 barrels of oil or diesel. And each barrel contains 60 litres.
In the past, for three days in a week, oil would be transported by motorbikes, and for three days by donkeys. For unknown reasons, Iranian authorities do not allow donkeys to smuggle oil any more. But according to Khalo, his arbab’s consignment is still brought by donkeys. That is why he is sure today is not their turn, because these donkeys can only reach there in the darkness of the night.
Jodar is becoming hotter in the afternoon. To avoid the scorching sun, I sit in Ashraf’s hotel under the pretext of taking tea after tea. Saleem* has parked his Zamyad at the hotel, too. For the last two days, he has been in Jodar waiting for his turn to load his vehicle. Every man has a story in this part of the country. No one smuggles oil happily. Saleem has children back in Mashkhel. His sole source of income is through oil smuggling, which he has been doing for decades. If the Jodar border remains closed, he is afraid his children, like those of other Zamyad drivers, will suffer the most. “The amount that we are paid is a pittance,” says Saleem. “As the driver of a Zamyad, I am paid 3,000 rupees per trip, while my chhotu is paid 2,000 rupees.”
Leaning against his Zamyad, Saleem says their oil business is in severe decline. According to him, the reason is that while, at its peak, up to 1,200 Iranian vehicles would enter Pakistani territory from Iran per day to bring oil and diesel to depots situated on the Pakistani side — including in Jodar — now the number has reduced to 400 vehicles a day because Iran has tightened the noose on smuggling in recent months. Saleem excuses himself to go for a nap as he is fasting.
On the Iranian side of the Jodar mountains, there are landmines.
Back at the Jodar check-post at night, everyone one is busy gossiping with one another in groups. Khalo had told me at the end of the day that only 200 pick-ups had brought oil and diesel from Iran. He is now zonked out, sleeping.
Suddenly, although there is no cloud in the sky, we see a light flash far away over the mountains, followed by a bang. A few drivers struggle to start their vehicle, and they rush to the FC check-post. After an hour, we get the news: a donkey carrying two barrels of oil had stepped on a landmine.
Khalo tells me: “Donkeys loaded with oil and diesel travel through these mountains the whole night. The Irani Baloch, who are smuggling the oil out of Iran, follow the donkeys. Because there are landmines, they let the donkeys go ahead and follow them. If the donkeys step on landmines in the mountains, the men go back to save their own lives.”
Despite the bang and the excitement that ensued, we are so tired that we soon fall asleep under the open sky.
The next day, Khalo wakes me up by 6 am again. After having breakfast in Ashraf’s hotel, we are back to the routine. Khalo is confident enough to tell me their turn is not going to come for a few more days because of the donkeys killed by the landmine last night.
Saying goodbye wth Black 2D
Black 2D is one of the best drivers. Now in his early 30s, he has been driving for a decade now. He gets the name because he is dark-skinned and drives the loaded Zamyad vehicle like a Toyota Corolla 2D. He is always the first to reach a destination, despite hauling 60 barrels full of oil in the back of his truck.
It is my last two days in Jodar. Khalo and his ustad Imran are unsure when their turn will come following the killings of the donkeys.
Black 2D and his chhotu are preparing for iftari at the check-post. Unlike Khalo and Imran, they are fasting. After having iftari with them, Khalo requests him to take me back to Dalbandin the next day so that I may leave for Quetta from there. He agrees. I listen to his banter with other drivers: how they usually dodge Iranian security personnel and FC men, in the darkness of the night, to pass Jodar border point right under their noses. I don’t know if these are lies or not. But Black 2D concludes: “Had my arbab allowed me, I would dodge the FC men every day. But, he does not.”
The next day, I leave for Dalbandin with Black 2D. His Zamyad loaded with oil, he comfortably drives us back to Dalbandin in five hours. He apologises to me at the Dalbandin bus stop for not being able to serve me a meal in Ramazan. I thank him for driving me back to town, and we say goodbye.
Four days later, Khalo calls me from Mashkhel, where there is cell phone coverage. To my surprise, he is going back to Dalbandin unloaded, as their turn had not come. He was in Jodar for more than a week, to earn just 2,000 rupees. But he will now return empty-handed.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals*
The writer is a member of staff
THE FEAR OF HAJI DHARMENDRA
Known as Bhug in local parlance, the Hamun-i-Mashkhel covers a vast area in the Mashkhel tehsil of Washuk district, and stretches into Iran. Hamuns are shallow seasonal lakes fed by snowmelt. The Zamyad takes an hour travelling in the area to reach Mashkhel. According to local interpretations, Bhug used to be a lake in the ancient past which dried up over centuries. Water from the surrounding rivers also accumulates in it.
Due to its vastness, people have gone missing and said to have died due to the scarcity of water. Smugglers and other locals do not take the risk of travelling to Mashkhel at night. Within Bhug, there are a few sand dunes and a few shrubs. While travelling to Jodar through Mashkhel, Khalo had shared with me in his stutter, “Look, this [place] Kachar belongs to Haji Dharmendra, the notorious thief in Hamun-i-Mashkhel.”
Afghan immigrants who also travel through Hamun-i-Mashkel increasingly get robbed. Another driver at Ashraf’s hotel, Majeed*, tells me, “When I used to drive Afghan immigrants between Duk and Mashkhel, we were robbed thrice in Hamun-i-Mashkhel. Thank God, they left our clothes — they left nothing else, they even took the tyres of my pick-up.”
Haji Dharmendra is a local Baloch. But nothing else is known about him.
But I meet another driver at the hotel who narrates his first-hand encounter with Dharmendra.
Saadullah* is old and cannot squat because he was once beaten up by FC men for trying to enter Jodar point in the darkness of night. He used to have an old Zamyad, which could not speed up more than 40mph. Once driving through Bhug, three Toyota pick-ups tailed him. Loaded with oil in the back of his Zamyad, Saadullah could not speed up, so he slammed on the brakes. “I was taken to Kachar, in the middle of the sand dunes,” he recalls. “There were around six Toyota pick-ups, and one Toyota Cruiser pick-up driven by Haji Dharmendra himself.”
“Haji Dharmendra was sitting on a mat, and he welcomed me. He was happy I had not tried to run away from his men, and he served me black tea with gurr [jaggery]. He asked me about my tribe and the place I belonged to. I thought he was a good guy, and other Zamyad drivers were just doing propaganda against him.”
As Saadullah happily started taking the tea after putting a piece of gurr into his mouth, Haji Dharmendra ordered his armed men to unload 15 barrels out of the 60 barrels in Saadullah’s Zamyad. “As I heard that, the gurr stuck in my throat. I started crying out: If I go without 15 barrels, my arbab will strangle me. Shedding tears, I asked for mercy: ‘Both of us are Baloch, but I am a poorer than you. I try to eke out a living by working for my arbab.’”
Showing mercy, Haji Dharmendra had only 10 barrels unloaded from Saadullah’s Zamyad, and even paid for five barrels. “Haji Dharmendra is dishonestly honest,” Saadullah sums it up, puffing on a cigarette.
Some accounts say Haji Dharmendra was killed long ago. But his fear still lingers. In my interviews with drivers, they suggest that new thieves emerge daily who continue to use Haji Dharmendra’s name. One of the drivers who was robbed on Eid one or two years ago, recalls over a cup of tea in Ashraf’s hotel: “I was stopped by a shiny black Toyota pick-up. Four men got out of the Toyota along with their leader. Calling himself Haji Dharmendra, he robbed me of my money, mobile and five barrels of oil.
“‘You know, I am a poor old Baloch man’, I implored in front of their leader, asking: ‘Why do you rob me? I’m just a driver of a Zamyad trying to earn a living.’”
“’I totally understand you are a poor Baloch and old,” he replied to me, “but who can explain this to my wife? She needs clothes for Eid.’” —AN
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 23rd, 2019