Afghan-Pakistan border: A smuggler`s delight

Trucks belching exhaust fumes. A crush of humanity descending on both sides. Hawkers flogging luxuries -- and tiny smugglers scampering past guards engrossed in pocketing backhanders.

Last Updated: Jun 27, 2010, 20:56 PM IST

Torkham: Trucks belching exhaust
fumes. A crush of humanity descending on both sides. Hawkers
flogging luxuries -- and tiny smugglers scampering past guards
engrossed in pocketing backhanders.

Welcome to the free-for-all at Torkham -- the main border
crossing on the Khyber Pass route between war-torn Afghanistan
and Pakistan, a country bogged down in fighting militants.

For millennia the historic pass winding through the
mountains has been a lifeline for armies, smugglers and
traders from the sub-continent to central Asia.

Torkham is a business hub that operates beyond the law.
Bribery is the order of the day. People, goods and vehicles
cross freely without checks while needy families force their
children into work.

Mohabbat Khan, 10, told that he looks older than his age,
retorts: "Come with me and push this wheelbarrow for a year,
then I`ll tell you the same."

Like other children running wheelbarrows back and forth
between Afghanistan and Pakistan, carting those too infirm to
walk, tatty luggage or black-market goods, his day began at
dawn.

He works more than 10 hours a day, pocketing up to 40
rupees per cross-border trip. He says the money is to pay for
fuel to burn in the stove at home. He says the money is for
his sisters` dowries.

Mohabbat lives in Bacha Mena, a village at the top of the
Khyber Pass. His father died when he was two. When he was in
second grade, his mother yanked him out of school, saying he
was strong enough to push a wheelbarrow.

"I remember school but my mother and brothers told me I
was doing the right job, they told me I`m brave," said Khan,
wearing cast-off clothes and shoes.

Although children younger than 14 in Pakistan are not
legally entitled to work, labour laws don`t apply in Torkham
-- part of Pakistan`s semi-autonomous tribal area.

Dusty Pakistani and Afghan flags snap in the wind
alongside the huge iron gate that marks the border, with an
incongruous sign reading "May peace prevail on earth", in
English and Pashto.

Tribal police, paramilitary forces and officials man the
border, but travellers cross with rudimentary vehicle searches
and no visas.

Men, women and children walk through the main iron gate,
showing papers to no one. An AFP reporter joined the throng,
walking into Afghanistan for a drink and returning unchecked.

Torkham lies on the still-controversial Durand Line,
which British imperialists drew through millions of Pashtun
tribesmen to separate Pakistan from Afghanistan. Many in the
region refuse to recognise the border.

PTI