Situationer: Empty pockets in Chaman as border stalemate bites

Published June 17, 2024
TRUCKS loaded with goods are stranded on the Quetta-Chaman highway due to the sit-in, which has continued for around seven months.—Dawn
TRUCKS loaded with goods are stranded on the Quetta-Chaman highway due to the sit-in, which has continued for around seven months.—Dawn

LIKE many others in Chaman, Zaman Khan, a daily wage labourer in the city near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing, is struggling to make a living due to the border’s prolonged closure. The border has been shut for nearly seven months, since the start of a protest (dharna) during the interim government’s tenure before the 2024 general elections.

Zaman, locally known as a laghri, used to earn Rs1,500 daily. However, since the dharna began, he has been unable to support his family, relying on others and accumulating debt. He has joined the protest to demand an end to the visa policy and seek relief packages from the traders, which he feels is taking away their business by imposing such restrictions.

But his efforts, as well as those of others like him, have been met with silence and as a result, economic activity in Chaman has come to a standstill.

“I had to lie to my children for the first three days after the dharna started last October,” Zaman told Dawn. “I had no money to buy groceries, and no other work to fall back on. Eventually, they realised there was nothing I could do for them, and now we barely manage two meals a day. I’m drowning in debt since the border closed.”

New policy triggered standoff between govt and traders, depriving poor workers of jobs

Chaman, a once-thriving commercial town, rose to prominence in the late 1970s due to Afghan trade. Today, it stands as the second-largest commercial border point with Afghanistan, after Torkham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Located 120km from Quetta, the provincial capital, Chaman has recently been designated a separate district, having previously been part of Killa Abdullah district. The region is predominantly inhabited by Pakhtuns.

Like Zaman, many others in Chaman, including residents and traders, share the same grievances. Dawood Achakzai, a resident, told Dawn that Chaman’s economy relies heavily on border trade, but since its closure, all activity has ceased, leaving people struggling to make ends meet.

Haji Abdul Ghani Khan, an official of the Chaman Chamber of Comm­erce and Industry, lamented that business has ground to a halt in Chaman, leaving people without jobs.

“The government is playing politics with Afghanistan, and we’re bearing the consequences,” he told Dawn. “They’re trying to impose changes overnight without giving us time to adapt or offering alternatives. We needed a gradual phase-out, at least a year to sort things out. But instead, people’s assets are stuck at the border, and they are suffering losses.”

According to Ghani Khan, for several months now, Chaman has seen a complete halt in trade, with no imports or exports moving through the border, and no cargo shipments to Afghanistan. This is despite Chaman being the most direct route from Karachi and Gwadar Port to Central Asian countries, making the current situation all the more dire.

The closure of the Chaman border results in a monthly revenue loss of Rs2 billion for the government, not to mention the losses suffered by people. Yet, despite this significant economic impact, the government remains unresponsive to the demands of the traders and businessmen in Chaman, failing to reach a logical resolution to the crisis, Ghani Khan added.

Due to the state’s apathy, the protests in Chaman turned violent, as local authorities attempted to forcibly reopen the Quetta-Chaman National Highway, where protesters were camped. In response, demonstrators stormed and ransacked the deputy commissioner’s office, following the dismantling of their camp and the temporary reopening of the highway.

Tensions in Chaman persisted for three days, marked by clashes between protesters and security personnel, resulting in several injuries and arrests. Notably, Sadiq Khan Achakzai and Ghousullah, spokesmen for the sit-in committee, were among those taken into custody and remain behind bars until the filing of this report.

In a press conference at the Quetta Press Club after the unrest, Balochistan Home Minister Mir Ziaullah Longove stressed that no one would be allowed to challenge the writ of the state.

Haji Jalat Khan Achakzai, a member of Chaman’s business community, told Dawn that the situation has returned to normal. However, other protesters, including traders, argue that the government only managed to restore calm through force, and that the sit-in is still ongoing in Chaman.

Assistant Professor Mohammad Arif, who teaches in the International Relations department at the University of Balochistan, said that documentation is a universal requirement for travel between countries. “It’s a common practice worldwide,” he explained to Dawn in Quetta.

“Just like in Chaman, India has also halted transit at its borders with Bhutan and Nepal due to security concerns. States often take such measures when they perceive a security threat from a neighbouring country.”

He added: “Similarly, Pakistani authorities have conducted air strikes within Afghanistan, pursuing [the banned] Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan elements, demonstrating the complexity of regional security dynamics.

“When relations between countries are strained, situations like border closures can arise.”

A recent report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) suggests that, while addressing its concerns over the dharna, there should be “immediate engagement with the affected communities, all stakeholders and Afghan representatives through dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the issue”.

It further states that efforts should be made to enhance economic opportunities in Balochistan, particularly in the Chaman district, through investment in local industries, job creation and support for small traders, as this could mitigate the impact of border restrictions on livelihoods.

When contacted, Balochistan HRCP vice chairman Habib Tahir told Dawn: “We have always strongly opposed violence, in any form, against peaceful assembly because it is a constitutional right. But unfortunately, in Balochistan, there has been violence against all peaceful assemblies. It is the state’s failure if it itself cannot deal with matters peacefully.”

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2024

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