Duk, a deserted area near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, is situated merely five kilometres from the Afghanistan border. There are no human settlements for miles around, which is why it is used for the illegal transportation of goods between the two countries. But locals call it a business.

Reko Diq, one of the largest undeveloped copper and gold deposits in the world, is situated right next door. This is Balochistan’s Chagai district, which shares a border with both Afghanistan and Iran.

But unfortunately, unemployment is ramp­ant in the resource-rich district. As a result, Ba­­loch youths drive ‘Zambad’ pickup trucks, fer­rying oil, clothes, urea and rice, among other things, to and from Afghanistan and Iran.

These blue pick-up vehicles are manufactured by Zamyad Co. in Tehran and are non-custom paid and unregistered, meaning there is no official count of their numbers. There are roughly thousands of such vehicles in Balochistan.

An old Zamyad can be bought for around 200,000 rupees; for a new one, the price can go up to over a million. These vehicles are almost exclusively used for oil and diesel smuggling in Balochistan: loaded with blue barrels, they can be easily spotted from afar all across the province.

In local parlance, these are known as ‘Zambad’.

Background interviews with Pakistani officials suggest there have been tensions with the Afghan Taliban over the fencing of the border over the past several months, which is why security forces have, time and again, warned Zambad drivers not to come. But an empty stomach compelled Hameedullah Baloch, 30, and other drivers to go to the border to transport urea in the month of Ramazan.

It emerged during interviews that security personnel confiscated and wrecked the Zambad vehicles for daring to come to the border. But when Hameedullah tried to run away, he received a bullet in the head.

According to his brother Mohammad Ibrahim, if he was guilty of a crime, he could have been shot in the leg to incapacitate him, instead of killing him on the spot. “He was the breadwinner of the family,” he says in his hoarse voice, which bears the scars of grief.

“He had three young children who were waiting for him to come back so he could buy them new clothes for Eid. All they got was a glimpse of his face in a coffin.”

Although security personnel have not responded to questions surrounding the death of the Zambad driver, a member of the district administration told Dawn on condition of anonymity that Hammeedullah had not stopped his truck when signaled by security personnel to stop. Instead, he had tried to speed away, which is why he was shot.

Other Zambad drivers were not spared and sent off on foot, despite the fact that there is no human settlement for miles around. Thirst and hunger circles like vultures over the heads of these drivers.

There is no water for miles and miles around and the nearest major town is over three hours’ drive away, what to speak of walking there. One of the drivers who was made to march home is Habib.

He claims that he and around 200 Zambad drivers were left in the desert.

“We do not know whether our other friends are alive or dead. We only reached town after finding a ride on a truck that was passing through the desolate area.”

Hameedullah’s death sparked a protest in Naukundi, where the fleeing drivers ended up. This agitation then spread to other parts of the district.

On Sunday, at least seven people were injured amid violent protests outside a government building being used by security forces. The mob tried to set fire to its main gate and in return, security forces fired in the air to disperse the mob.

Following the incident, a video of three drivers lying dead in the desert was circulated on social media. But when the district administration took notice and dispatched their team to rescue the drivers, they claimed there were no dead bodies.

An official from Chagai claimed to have rescued around 15 drivers in the area but said no one had contacted them about the missing drivers. He said it may have been an old video, but “there were no traces of dead bodies in the desert.”

Official sources, too, have not yet confirmed the death of the three Zambad drivers, claiming it was an old video.

Lashkaraap, a remote town in Chagay, another tehsil in the Chagai district, is Hameedullah’s hometown.

After Hameedullah’s dead body was taken there, a similar protest broke out which resulted in injuries to at least eight people.

In the words of a Zambad driver, Mohammad Naeem, who was one of the protestors there, “earning a living has become a crime”.

“This is why we protest,” he says, “so that Hameedullah’s family can get justice.”

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2022

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