Pakistan’s decision to close the border with Afghanistan was a largely symbolic act aimed at forcing its neighbor to take action against extremist groups blamed for fomenting cross-border terror attacks.
It’s a hard reality for the travelers and traders trapped for nearly two weeks on both sides of the dusty crossings at Torkham, Ghulam Khan and Chaman.
Truckloads of food are rotting. Families are divided. People seeking treatment for a variety of ailments have run out of medicine and money, or will do so soon. Only ambulances transferring the dead from the Pakistan side have been allowed to pass.
“We implore the two governments to pay attention to our problems,” said Ahmadullah, an Afghan stuck on the Pakistani side. “We have suffered in terms of our health. We have run out of medicines. Look at my friend who is sitting and vomiting.”
Sayedul Haq, another stranded Afghan, added: “They should let us cross and join our families. Let them build a wall. We will no longer go to Pakistan, because we have our own country. Let’s forget Pakistan. We are like prisoners.”
Waris Ali, from Pakistan’s Punjab province, waited on the other side of the fence.
“I have come from Kabul 12 days ago,” he said. “I am sick and cannot eat. I have no medicines, too. I don’t have money to pay for my stay at the hotel.”
Terror attacks cited
Pakistan says it understands the pain but claims it had to act amid a rash of terror attacks around the country that killed over 150 people in just a few days.
Islamic State and allied groups have claimed responsibility for those attacks and similar ones in Afghanistan — which Kabul blames on terrorists in safe havens in Pakistan — that seem aimed at destabilizing both countries’ governments and driving them even further apart when they could be cooperating to fight a common enemy.
“When so much is happening [terrorist attacks] here [in Pakistan] and there are indications that it has links there [Afghanistan], then you have to do such measures, so this was a temporary measure,” said Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s foreign affairs adviser. “I hope border crossings will be opened soon.”
While Pakistan also has launched a nationwide crackdown on extremists, the closed border crossings have become the face of its anti-terror efforts. Normally bustling with colorfully decorated trucks mixing with cars, carts and pedestrians, the crossings now sit empty, except for armed Pakistani troops.
“The closures of these crossing points, which are heavily regulated with full checking arrangements on both sides, serve no purpose other than to inflict hardship on ordinary people and hurt trade and transit,” said Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan.
Fatima Atif, a human rights activist, agrees.
“Border closure will not serve the purpose, and it is not a long-term solution,” Atif said. “We should regulate the border in an effective way and should have better ties with neighbors.”
‘We have suffered’
Officials have estimated daily losses in trade at $3 million.
“Hundreds of stranded goods trucks are loaded with fresh fruits, vegetables, poultry and other edible items, which are near to waste,” said Zubair Motiwala, chairman and president of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We urge both governments that business and trade ties should be separated from political tensions.”
Truck driver Sayed Anwar said he had run out of his expense money, adding: “We have suffered heavy losses.”
More worrying for many are concerns about permanent long-term damage to trade, with recent figures showing a rise in Afghanistan’s trade with Iran and a corresponding decline in business with Pakistan.
“Pakistan-Afghanistan trade has dropped significantly in the last 1½ years because of bilateral tension,” said Motiwala, who estimated that there had been a 40 percent decline in recent years.