Abdul Haleem Baloch is among thousands of drivers who eke out a dangerous living illegally smuggling fuel from southeastern Iran into southwestern Pakistan.
But the closure of all border crossings between the two countries amid Islamabad’s construction of a 900-kilometer border fence has trapped thousands of fuel carriers mid-journey. It spells the end of a livelihood for tens of thousands of men in Balochistan, Pakistan’s most impoverished province reeling from violence, poverty, and unemployment.
Baloch and thousands of other drivers have been trapped in the remote villages of Nawanu and Abdoi since the beginning of April. He says it was horrifying to witness the deaths of drivers around him such as Fazal Sabzal, 45, who reportedly died of thirst in the desert region, where daytime temperatures currently exceed 40 degrees Celsius.
“He fell critically ill. He couldn’t get any water for 10 hours, and the thirst claimed his life,” Baloch said of Sabzal’s death during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslim adults refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk. “I am surviving on water contaminated by diesel,” he told Gandhara.
He paints a picture of a landscape pockmarked with desperation, where every dirt track and back road linking the border villages to Balochistan’s cities is blocked by pickup trucks that illegally ferry fuel in barrels from Iran. Some vehicles are overturned or have run out of fuel.
"I’ve been stuck here for more than two weeks and have been forced to sleep under the blazing sun,” Baloch said. “I have no food, clean water, or toilet.”
Islamabad closed its border with Iran across the province of Balochistan in March following days of protests in Iran’s neighboring Sistan-Baluchistan Province over the killing of Baluch fuel carriers by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Thousands remain trapped along the border while Pakistan builds a fence that it says is necessary to protect the country from militants.
Abdul Haleem Baloch is among the tens of thousands of ethnic Baluch men from Balochistan and Sistan-Baluchi
stan who have turned to fuel smuggling because of a lack of jobs in the both countries. Both of the Baluch-majority provinces are the poorest in their respective countries despite being home to seaports, trade routes, and vast mineral resources. Both regions have witnessed attacks by ethnonationalist separatists and Islamist militants, and Islamabad and Tehran have often employed heavy-handed tactics to crush dissent. i
Balochistan’s residents say the border closure is killing their livelihood. “People do this out of utter desperation,” says a relative of Sabzal who requested anonymity because of fears he would be harassed. "He was poor and was the sole bread winner of his family,” he added. “He wanted to give his children a better future, so he took up this life-threatening job.”
The relative told Gandhara that Sabzal did everything he could to provide for his five daughters and son. "Before he left for the border, he promised his youngest son he would buy him a new bicycle and clothes for Eid-ul Fitar,” he recalled. “His son is now asking when his father will return.”
Death Toll Likely To Rise
Observers warn of a brewing humanitarian crisis along the border. Gulzar Dost, the general secretary of Border Trade Union in Turbat, a Balochistan district bordering Iran, says four drivers have died already, and the number is likely to rise.
"We have never witnessed anything like this,” he said. “The border was sealed without any warning, and the thousands of traders and drivers stuck there have run out of their food supplies and are sleeping rough.”
He says fuel smugglers typically carry a week’s worth of food and water but that they have run out in the desert. "The conditions are extremely dire and worsening as some people have been stuck there for weeks," Gulzar said.
Journalist Behram Baloch, who is based in the nearby district of Gwadar, says locals fear more deaths will follow.
"There are more than 10,000 drivers stuck at the border crossing points in Kech, Panjgur, and Gwadar,” he said, naming some of Balochistan’s districts that share a border with Iran. “They have nothing to eat and are exposed to high temperatures while receiving little or no help."
Baloch says the government has been slow to respond. “The authorities are now letting people bring food and water to some of those who are trapped,” he said, adding that blocked roads and pathways have made rescue difficult. “But there are still a large number of people at risk of starvation and heat stroke.”
Liaqat Shahwani, a spokesman for Balochistan’s provincial government, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. "We will try to solve the issue. Whatever the outcome be, we will share it with the media," he later told journalists in Quetta, the provincial capital. Shahwani said their administration is discussing possible solutions to the issue with the federal government in Islamabad.
Hussain Jan Baloch, the deputy commissioner for Kech, a senior government bureaucrat, says they are helping the trapped fuel traders. “The authorities have responded adequately [to the crisis] by providing help to hundreds of drivers stuck along the border,” he said in a statement last week after visiting a closed border crossing.
Back on the border, Abdul Haleem Baloch says nothing has changed since the bureaucrat’s April 18 visit. “We have not seen any help here, and nothing has changed,” he said. “When we try to protest, the Frontier Corps beats us,” he added, naming the paramilitary force that guards Pakistan’s border with Iran.
Baluch fuel smugglers are often killed by border guards as they brave accidents and dangers in their sparsely populated region. Last month, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized the IRGC for allegedly killing 12 Baluch fuel smugglers.
Lawmaker Sana Baloch, leader of the opposition Balochistan National Party Mengal in the provincial assembly, says Balochistan’s chronic underdevelopment keeps its residents impoverished and marginalized. Compared with other provinces, he points out, Balochistan trails behind in economic development as its 12 million residents face poverty, poor health and infrastructure, and low literacy. He says the region’s underdevelopment has forced its youth to make a living from dangerous cross-border trade.
"Islamabad is fencing this border without taking into consideration its adverse effects, and it’s becoming a worst-case scenario for unemployed youth,” he said. “There should be a trilateral commission comprising Iran, Pakistan, and Baluch representatives to make policies that won’t have a harmful impact in the region,” he added. “Pakistan and Iran need to come together and rethink their policies on humanitarian grounds."
Baluch activists and representatives maintain that cross-border trade is not only essential economically but culturally, and that closing it off endangers both lives and blood ties.
“Baluch people on both sides have tribal and clan ties. They have engaged in trade for centuries, which is still the dominant economic activity,” Aslam Shambezai, president of the Border Trade Union, told Gandhara. His union held a shutter-down strike against the border closure in Kech on April 27.
Traders across Balochistan have threatened to close major highways across the province if authorities fail to open the border by April 29.
In Makran, the coastal region where several districts share a border with Iran, traders, drivers, and fuel carriers are desperate for the border to reopen.
Shah Jan, a fuel carrier, has not been able to find work for a month. He is worried about how he will provide for his family if the border closure extends indefinitely.
“We are being starved in the name of security,” he said.