The writer en route to Mashkhel on a pick-up truck with travellers hoping to cross over to Iran illegally | Photos by the writer
The writer en route to Mashkhel on a pick-up truck with travellers hoping to cross over to Iran illegally | Photos by the writer

Over the years, human smuggling rackets in Balochistan have transported hundreds of thousands of Afghans to the Iran border via Pakistani territory. These illegal businesses operate in the shadows and exploit those desperate to get out to make a better life for themselves. What goes on during these arduous journeys? Our reporter goes undercover to find out

Ahmed* gives me unclear instructions. Speaking in Balochi over the phone, he tells me to reach Nok Kundi, a township in Chagai District, “in the dark”. He does not specify a time and gives me no room for follow-up questions, hanging up after speaking barely two sentences.

Thinking that he wants me to arrive while the town is asleep, I reach the given address at midnight. From the looks of it, Ahmed is asleep too. I repeatedly call his phone, but to no avail. As stray dogs take over the street outside his house, I knock and shout his name. Eventually, I decide to climb the gate and call out his name again.

He wakes up and is, expectedly, unhappy. “Is this any time to come?” Ahmed shouts, only getting angrier when he checks the time on his mobile phone. “You should have come during the day.”

I am utterly confused. I remind him that he had asked me to arrive ‘in the dark’. Apparently, those instructions were not meant to be taken so literally; he had simply meant that I should arrive discreetly. By climbing his gate after midnight and yelling his name till he woke up, I had clearly failed to fulfil that brief.

Discretion will be important while reporting this story. After all, I will be reporting on a human smuggling racket and travelling towards Iran with individuals crossing over illegally. This is an unsafe journey, only taken by those who need to flee to Iran (and often plan to eventually make their way to Turkey or Europe).

With frequent exchanges of bribes, exploitation of those desperate to get out and a complete disregard for many laws, this is not a journey that is meant to be witnessed by any journalist. And so, I will be undercover and will have to avoid bringing attention to myself in the way I did by showing up to my source Ahmed’s house and yelling his name at midnight.

I chalk this error in judgement to exhaustion — I haven’t slept in two days — and anticipation of the journey ahead. Ahmed is the only person featured in this story who knows my true identity. I sleep at his house for a few hours, before I have to be on my way.

As morning comes, I prepare to end up as an illegal immigrant in my own country.


Lately, I have been spending a lot of time on phone calls while preparing for this story. Even on the day of the journey, I find myself making another call, this time to Arbab, the head of one of the human smuggling rackets and an owner of vehicles that transport illegal immigrants.

Arbab answers the phone and gets straight to the point. “Are you a ‘naswar’ [snuff] or are you a ‘mirch’ [chilli]?” he asks, using the code words they use for Afghans and Punjabis.

“Arbab, I am a naswar,” I respond in Balochi. He then asks me to come to a parchoon ki dukaan [grocery store] at London Road, which passes Nok Kundi.

I assume this means the questioning is over. I am wrong.

I arrive at the store. I am wearing a silver coloured Baloch shalwar kameez and a white chador with black stripes. I use the chador to cover my face. At the store, I drink mineral water before calling Arbab.

He is looking at me from another shop and recognises me, even though I have covered my face. “Yes. I can see you holding a mobile to your ear with a white chador,” he says and waves me over. While feeling nervous, I head to the other shop.

At the shop, Arbab is sitting on a chair while I sit on the floor. “So, how can an Afghan speak in Balochi?” he asks.

I feel nervous over the question, but fight not to let it show. I have prepared for this and have gone over my carefully crafted backstory many times.

“I am an Afghan from Quetta, but my mother is a Barech from Gharibabad Killi in Nushki District,” I say. Barech Pashtuns are a minority in this belt. Many of them are married in Baloch families and predominantly speak Balochi.

“So, what is your subtribe in Barech?” Arbab fires back.

Although the prepared answer, Akazai Barech, is in my head, I cannot bring it to my tongue due to my nerves. Instead, I tell him I moved to Quetta from Nushki during my childhood, and do not know what my mother’s subtribe is.

Before he asks a third question, I gain a little confidence and share with him the ordeal of joblessness in Quetta. “Arbab, do you know,” I ask him, “ in their late forties are unmarried in Quetta due to joblessness and a lack of even menial work? They live their lives as bachelors, despite having degrees in their hands.”

Arbab looks surprised. His eyes dilate, and he takes his tongue out slightly and holds it between his teeth. “Really?” he asks, giving me room to elaborate.

Feeling more in control of the conversation, I continue. “As an Afghan, I could only matriculate,” I say, still sitting on the floor in front of him, as if he were a king on a throne and I his subject. “Unlike other bachelor men my age, I am engaged to an Afghan girl in Quetta.”

As Arbab intently listens to the tales I am spinning, one of his men serves us tea.

Arbab is now convinced to the extent of being generous. “There is no need for you to leave Pakistan,” he says. “Why not?” I ask, taking a sip of my tea. “I can hire you in a garage here in Nok Kundi.”

“No Arbab!” I respond immediately. “My father-in-law has given me four months to pay the dowry,” I say. “If I do not earn the money, which is a sizable sum, he will break my engagement with my fiancé.”

Illustration by Samiah Bilal
Illustration by Samiah Bilal

Eventually, Arbab acquiesces. In order to avoid more questions, I ask him to point me in the direction of a washroom. He directs me to the washroom of a nearby mosque on the same road. I idly sit inside for over five minutes, until Arbab comes and knocks on the door. He asks me to hurry up, the vehicle has arrived.

Before leaving I kiss Arbab’s hand, then bring it towards my eyes and chest, as a sign of reverence.

I then see the pick-up truck we will be travelling towards Iran in.

Fittingly, it is manufactured by Zamyad Co. in Tehran, and locally referred to as ‘Zambad’.

The only people to get on the Zambad are me, the driver Dost Muhammad, and a kaleinder (cleaner). This is the stop from where the vehicles leave, the passengers will join in at the next stop.

I use the drive to the next stop to try and befriend the driver who is also a local Baloch. The benefit of being the first passenger on the truck is that I get a seat. The Zambad only has space for four passengers in the front, all the others will have to squeeze in the back.


Situated at the edge of Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan is the desert of Duk. In some places, the sand dunes are as high as the rugged mountains that can be seen in several parts of Balochistan. Speaking about the region’s unique landscape, American geologists reportedly once said that this was “the closest thing to Mars on earth.”

When we get to Duk, the other travellers have already arrived. Hundreds of Afghan immigrants, including women and children, illegally arrive in Duk from all parts of Afghanistan. As per one smuggler’s estimate, over 35 thousand arrive in a month.

If one wants to witness the real cost of Afghanistan’s 40 years of war, one should visit this place. The people’s long faces are clearly pale and exhausted, and tell the story of a war-torn Afghanistan.

As this area sees so much foot traffic of travellers, a tiny pop-up bazaar has opened up in the desert. Bottled water (smuggled from Iran), biscuits and juices are sold in tents. Everything here is pricier. If a bottle of water costs 50 rupees in Quetta or Karachi, it costs 100 rupees here. Despite this, one by one, the Afghan travellers buy water and other items of necessity. The sun is already out and people want to beat the heat. Fortunately, the water is chilled and provides momentary relief.

Discretion will be important while reporting this story. After all, I will be reporting on a human smuggling racket and travelling towards Iran with individuals crossing over illegally. This is an unsafe journey, only taken by those who need to flee to Iran (and often plan to eventually make their way to Turkey or Europe).”

With a group of two dozen Afghan immigrants, most of them Uzbeks and Tajiks, the real journey begins from Duk. “Mandhana Bashey [greeting in Dari],” I warmly say to everyone on the Zambad. But the sleepy environment on the pick-up is no place for greetings. Nobody responds.

More than 20 passengers squeeze in the back of the Zambad, the rest of us are in the front seats.

Our driver, Dost Muhammad, turns the ignition on, presses the clutch and puts the car in first gear, slowly pressing the accelerator. The pick-up starts wobbling through the sandy routes. Ours is not the only Zambad taking this journey; instead we are a tiny caravan of four pick-up trucks.

As we make our way through the desert terrain, our Zambad gets stuck in the sand. We all get off to push it out. Before I’ve even had the chance to put my hands on the Zambad, some Uzbek men and boys lift the vehicle out of the sand. Soon enough, we are back inside, wobbling along with the Zambad.

The breathtaking drive through the desert takes about 30 minutes. I see, firsthand, just how powerful Zambads are. “It is a poor person’s Land Cruiser,” Dost Muhammad later tells me. A new Land Cruiser can cost up to 53 million rupees, while the Zambad we are on is worth a mere two lakh rupees.

After our Zambad is out of the desert area, we enter a somewhat dark brown landscape after around 35 minutes; the landscape continues to change colours as we drive ahead. The three pick-ups follow us and, sometimes, overtake us.


The apparently out-of-order pick-up that took us to Mashkhel
The apparently out-of-order pick-up that took us to Mashkhel

We are on a kutcha (makeshift) road, but Dost Muhammad is in no mood to drive slowly anymore. The road may be patchy, but it is a definite upgrade from the desert sand. As Dost Muhammad cruises, the speedometer’s hand touches 120km/h. Those of us with seats attempt to hold on to them, while those in the back quietly withstand the bumpy ride. Being illegal immigrants, nobody can complain.

I recite my kalmas over and over again, and attempt to recall the safar ki dua (prayer for travelling), which is escaping me.

Eventually, Dost Muhammad slows down a bit. Everyone is wide awake by now. Taking advantage of this, I greet my seatmate named Izzat. “Mandhana Bashey,” I say. “Khair Bashey,” he responds.

I have recently started learning Dari, and am very happy that he understood me. With newfound (most likely undeserved) confidence in my Dari-speaking skills, I decide to ask him where in Afghanistan he is from, and why he is fleeing the country. First I formulate the questions in my mind. And it takes me another minute to say them to Izzat, who is still listening to me attentively. After finishing my questions, I ask him: “Fahmidi? [Understood?].” “Na fahmidi [not understood],” he responds.

I keep at it and, eventually, the conversation starts to flow. Izzat tells me that he is from Afghanistan’s Farkar District. “It is a piece of heaven on earth,” he says. “But what it does not have is peace. We have left it behind in search of a better life.”

Izzat does not want the next generation to grow up like he and those before him did. He intends to go to Turkey and support his family financially from there. Eventually, he hopes, he will be able to call his family to Turkey too.

But it will not all be smooth sailing. There are many dangers on the way and, indeed, the route can be deadly. Last year, Afghan lawmakers had said 45 migrants trying to cross into Iran were killed by Irani border guards.

Izzat is all too aware of these realities. But the slight chance that he’ll be able to make it through and start a better life is enough for him to take the risk.

My conversation with Izzat is interrupted because the Zambad is back at the same speed, jumping up and down on the kutcha road. Soon, we cross London Road that lies between Nok Kundi (where my journey started) and Taftan. The pick-up’s speed remains the same.

While driving like a mad man, Dost Muhammad is also trying to call Arbab; distracted because he is not getting cell service. Fearing for my life, I politely ask him if I should try to make the call instead. But my frequent attempts at calling Arbab are also useless. There is no network coverage.

As I continue to try calling Arbab, I am distracted by a ruckus in the back. Two Uzbek passengers start to hit each other and violently fight. As they continue, our driver remains unmoved. “These Uzbeks’ anger starts where a Pashtun’s anger ends,” he declares.

Being confined in a small space during the bumpy ride is clearly getting to people. Following a four-hour-long drive in the Zambad, we stop at a hotel in an area called Siahpat (black plain). There is no human settlement in sight. This is a route only used by smugglers.

The border force Frontier Corps (FC) apparently keeps a close eye on this ‘no man’s land’. The smugglers and the smuggled alike fear the FC men.


Travellers line up to buy cold water and other necessary items from a pop-up store in the desert
Travellers line up to buy cold water and other necessary items from a pop-up store in the desert

Dozens of men, women and children set up tents for the four-hour-long stopover. Everyone is visibly thirsty and dehydrated. Like the other passengers, my face is pale, dusty and exhausted. I remove sweat from my face with my chador.

But I must still look different from the others; like an outsider who does not belong here. One of the drivers singles me out and strikes up a conversation. I tell him my fictitious story. After listening to it, he puts his hand on his forehead. “Brasook [brother], what have you done?” he admonishes me for taking this journey. “Had you contacted me earlier, I would have taken you to Iran just like a flower, via Panjgur District.” I play dumb and manage to make the driver feel so bad for me that he buys me a bottle of water (again, one smuggled from Iran).

“There are thieves from each settlement in the area,” Khan tells me. They take everything they can get their hands on. “They do not even leave the tyres of our vehicles,” he says. “I do not travel at night anymore, because I have been robbed twice.”

After this stopover, there are two routes these smugglers use to reach towns near the Iran border: Rajay and Mashkhel. Our destination is Mashkhel, after which the travellers would have to travel another two hours to Jodar, a town that borders Iran. The total journey from Duk to Jodar is about 12-hours-long; the last stretch of which is often undertaken on foot.

As we get ready for the journey ahead, an old, apparently out-of-order pick-up with punctured tires and no bonnet or glass windows catches my attention. I assume this pick-up has been abandoned here. I am horrified to learn that this is the vehicle that I and 23 others will be travelling in. “We will never reach,” I think to myself and panic.

Soon the vehicle’s driver, Muhammad Khan, comes out of a tent with a hand pump. “Don’t worry,” he attempts to assure me and my fellow travellers. “All it needs is some air in the tyres.”

But I am adamant that this will simply not do. Others join in, complaining that we need another vehicle.

Soon our complaining is interrupted when Muhammad Khan announces that some FC men are on their way. I am one of the first men to get into the pick-up truck.


When we are on our way, I strike up a conversation with the driver; I want to make sure he holds no ill will towards me for protesting about the pick-up. To get him to talk I tell him about our previous driver driving at 120 km/h.

Khan responds, but I do not hear him as his vehicle is significantly louder than him. “Sorry, I did not hear you,” I say. “Brasook,” he repeats himself in a louder voice. “If you drive at the speed of 80, you reach home; if you drive at the speed of 100, you reach a hospital; and if you drive at the speed of 120, you reach a graveyard.” I appreciate the fact that, even though our pick-up is falling apart, our new driver appears to be more careful than the previous. This illusion will break soon.

Khan tells me that he knows all the routes leading to Mashkhel on his fingers tips, and he can drive us there with his eyes closed. After making this declaration, he closes his eyes and the steering wheel vibrates violently in protest.

I later learn that Khan is not more careful than Dost Muhammad when it comes to speeding. His old pick-up simply cannot speed up over 80 km/h.

After driving for another two hours, we stop at a hotel. Here I have water and tea with the driver. Following a 30-minute stop, we are ready to be on our way again. “The waiting is the hardest part,” says Ramazan, one of the passengers, a man of few words. “That is what travel is all about,” I respond.

Ramazan, who is sandwiched between me and Khan, asks where we are. He is told that we are reaching Hamun-i-Mashkel, a place notorious for robberies and also known as the ‘abode of robbers’.


Our pick-up enters the vast Hamun-i-Mashkel area, a salty lake which is one of the driest places in Pakistan. I find myself at higher alert while entering the area. One of the fears is that of getting robbed. Apparently robbers patrol these parts for Afghan immigrants who are carrying cash. In some cases, the robbers work with the connivance of the drivers.

One famous robber is known as Haji ‘Chillee’ (a word used to describe a dirty person, who does not shower). According to some, he has such big hands that once, when he slapped an Uzbek man, the man fainted. The man had apparently refused to give money to Chillee.

Our driver then claims that, not too long ago, there was another robbery attempt here that resulted in a death. When the driver did not stop for the robbers, they opened fire on his pick-up, killing an Uzbek passenger. The passenger’s body had to be sent back to Afghanistan.

“There are thieves from each settlement in the area,” Khan tells me. They take everything they can get their hands on. “They do not even leave the tyres of our vehicles,” he says. “I do not travel at night anymore, because I have been robbed twice.”

Just as Khan says this, he notices a large vehicle with tinted glasses speeding towards his pick-up. Preparing for the worst, I stuff my mobile in an open space in the door next to me, pushing it to ensure that it stays in place. I have also secured a 5,000 rupees note under my kameez and in my shalwar’s belt area.

Khan is getting concerned about the vehicle approaching too. “Who can they be?” he asks himself.

He soon gets a closer look and takes a sigh of relief. They are just his siyals (relatives); there is nothing to worry about.

As we get closer to Mashkhel, we are joined by more Zambads that are heading in the same direction. The passengers complain that their bodies have become numb owing to sitting for so long in such a cramped space.

We take another break. As I struggle to take my mobile out of the car’s door, our driver sees me. “Had they been robbers, they would have taken it out on their own from here,” Khan tells me with a laugh. “You would have to give them your money too, no matter where you have it hidden.”


As we reach our last stopover before Mashkhel, the travellers and Khan start to quarrel. I stand at a distance, trying to comprehend what is going on.

“Each of you has paid 40 rupees less,” Khan says to them, while sipping on juice and munching on cake. “If you do not pay up, the police will arrive and arrest you,” he adds. Apparently, this amount is the police’s cut.

The passengers refuse to pay anything more. “Call whomever you want,” one says.

Khan tells someone to call the cops. Fearing for my own cover, I jump in. “Would you get them arrested for a mere 40 rupees?” I ask. “I can pay for that.” I do the math. The total would come to about 1,500 rupees. I take out the amount from my pocket and offer it. But Khan adamantly refuses.

“They are not your father’s relatives,” he says to me.

Apparently, the police are on their way. The passengers still refuse to comply.

Being unable to help the situation, I go and perform ablution using sand, and then say my prayers. After saying my asar namaz, I prolong my prayers.

Soon, Khan gives me a call and tells me to hurry up. When I return, the passengers have paid the amount and everything seems to be under control. But Khan has a question for me: “What time’s namaz did you just offer?”

“Obviously, asar,” I say. He says that it felt like I was saying lengthy taraweeh prayers. We continue talking about prayers and Khan smiles in a way I haven’t seen him before.

Maybe he is relieved that our journey is almost over. We load on to the rundown pick-up truck and are on our way. During these finally moments, Khan tells me that he had heard me call his pick-up ‘rotting [sarree hui]’. “Didn’t the same ‘rotting’ gaarri [vehicle] bring you to your destination?” he asks, not waiting for an answer.

The sun is descending as we enter Mashkhel Town. Once there, I take a sigh of relief. I have reached my destination. But for those who will be illegally crossing over, the hard part of the journey is yet to come.

Saddam, an elderly Afghan man, is travelling this way for the third time. Once he was also arrested by the Irani authorities.

The travellers will make their way to Jodar the following day after dawn. During the night they will all stay at different khwaabgahs (small rest houses). Our driver, who is a local, heads to his home. Telling my final lie of the journey, I also say to him that I will be spending some time with family at Mashkhel, before heading to Jodar another day.

Looking at the men, women and children around me at the khwaabgah, all hoping to cross over to find a happier life, I wonder what lies ahead for them. I wonder if they’ll ever find what they’re looking for. I wonder if they’ll be reunited with their families.

As I continue to wonder, I also start thinking about making arrangements for my journey back home. The other passengers are still resting. Their journey to a home they do not know will be much longer.

*Name changed to protect identity

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @Akbar_notezai

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 30th, 2021



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