KHYBER PASS, Pakistan – Truckers hauling cargo from Pakistan into Afghanistan though the main border crossing between the two countries have complained of bribes, long delays, and harassment by police and transport union officials.
In interviews with Radio Mashaal, several Pakistani and Afghan truck drivers say that going through the Torkham border crossing connecting northeastern Pakistan with eastern Afghanistan in the historic Khyber Pass is now an obstacle course that frequently results in stress and a loss of both business and time.
Muhammad Iqbal Afridi is one among the hundreds of drivers who frequently cross at Torkham as part of the more than 1,800-kilometer journey from the southern Pakistani seaport city of Karachi to the Afghan capital, Kabul. He says they are tormented by a recent government decision that forces truckers to make a stop at a terminal in Bara, some 50 kilometers from Torkham. Bara and Torkham are towns in the western Khyber district, which is named after the historic Khyber Pass, a historic trade route and invasion path.
Afridi has been waiting at Bara’s Akkakhel terminal for more than two weeks for the authorities to allow him to take his haul of sugar, flour, and cement into Afghanistan.
“Everyone is forced to wait endlessly,” he told Radio Mashaal. “There is nowhere for us to sleep or rest in the scorching heat. We are just forced to try to survive in the shadow of our trucks.”
Muhammad Gul, an Afghan trucker, has been waiting for three weeks. With his container truck of rice, Gul reached Bara on June 18. He frequently wipes the sweat from his face, visibly agitated about the delays in crossing into Afghanistan.
“How can we protect ourselves from the coronavirus when we don’t have soap or water? It is very difficult to stay away from others in this crammed space where we stay for days or weeks,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Truckers who pay bribes are allowed to go through. Our rights are being violated. Someone needs to sort this mess out.”
Traders in the region say cumbersome border protocols have reduced the number of trucks crossing daily from 800 earlier this year to around 200. This has also resulted in decreasing custom revenues for Islamabad, according to reports in the Pakistani media.
But officials in Khyber district deny they are harassing truckers or forcing them to make bribes. Mazhar Afridi, a senior police official in Khyber, says that based on an understanding with Afghan officials they are allowing only 200 trucks to pass through Torkham daily.
“If presented with evidence, we will prosecute any police officers, transport union officials, or truckers who are involved in giving or taking bribes,” he told Radio Mashaal, alluding to a recent directive by the head of police in Khyber district.
Torkham is the largest of several border crossings along the more than 2,500-kilometer Durand Line, the 19th-century demarcation that forms the border between the two restive neighbors. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Islamabad closed its border with Afghanistan in March. But by late June, Pakistani officials said they had reopened three major border crossings with Afghanistan.
Meanwhile in Chaman, a border crossing connecting Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan Province with southern Afghanistan, traders and activists are protesting border restrictions. Their monthlong sit-in protest demands the complete reopening of the border to restore hassle-free trade with Afghanistan, which is the mainstay of the economy in the arid region.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Mashaal correspondent Farhad Shinwari’s reporting from Khyber, Pakistan.