The story of Afghan families is often one of loved ones separated by long distances and national borders. Every year, many Afghans who have family living in neighbouring countries make the hours and sometimes days-long journey overland from Afghanistan, braving long bus rides, hours waiting to cross borders and the demands for payment by border guards all to spend some precious time with their families. In the latest instalment of The Daily Hustle, our series of individual accounts about an aspect of daily life in Afghanistan, AAN’s Ali Mohammad Sabawoon spoke to a traveller about his family’s overland journey from Kabul to Quetta to visit his mother and siblings.
Families walk along a fenced corridor as they cross the Spin Boldak-Chaman border from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
Photo: AFP, 21 November 2022.
Every winter, I travel with my wife and eight children to Quetta in Pakistan to spend a month with other family members who’ve been living there for the past three decades. This is a special time of year when we all gather as an extended family and renew the bonds of kinship. I hadn’t managed to make the journey for two years and my mother, who’s getting on in years, insisted we shouldn’t miss the gathering this year.
Getting from Kabul to Quetta is not an easy feat. You have to take an overnight bus from Kabul to Kandahar (nine hours), then a minibus to Spin Boldak (two hours), then it takes up to seven hours to cross the border and, finally, another six hours from the border to my family’s home, again in a minibus. In other words, it takes a little over 24 hours door-to-door. It’s also expensive. All told, it costs about USD 250 for my family of ten and there are also presents to be bought for my mother, siblings and their children.
By the time we arrived at the Spin Boldak-Chaman crossing, called the Friendship Gate or Da Dosti Darwaza in Pahsto, a large crowd was already waiting. But there were also some pleasant surprises. The crossing has improved significantly since the last time I was there two years ago. The Emirate has built two large modern halls: one for men and another for women. There were chairs to sit on and stalls selling snacks, tea and water to people waiting to cross. The children were tired from the overnight journey and getting restless, so I asked my wife to find a place for them to rest while I completed the formalities.
I’m from Kandahar and our ancestral home in the city is noted as my address on my tazkira (national identity card), so I’m allowed to travel to Pakistan without a visa – that’s the rule. But my uncle and his three sons, who were travelling to Quetta with us, don’t have a local address. They had to hire a laghari (guide)to take them across the border unofficially. Luckily a Taleb we had known for years was there at the crossing. He told us there had been incidents when guides robbed people and abandoned them halfway, in the middle of nowhere. Now, the Taleban had registered the guides in their system. He said he’d help us find a registered guide. After a while, he came back to the hall with another man and waved us over. He said he’d agreed to charge 2,500 Pakistani rupees (around eight US dollars) for each person.
I watched as the guide took my uncle and nephews to a row of people sitting in makeshift ‘offices’; some of the people working there took photographs, while others made laminated colour copies of Kandahari tazkiras, signed and stamped and looking very much like the genuine article. We agreed to meet on the other side of the border at Manda, the dry riverbed where the Quetta-bound vehicles stop to take on passengers.
For us, the formalities on the Afghan side were easily completed and we crossed that side of the border pretty quickly. But getting into Pakistan is another matter. It’s a long and arduous process. You have to pass through seven or eight checkpoints in the no-man’s land between the two countries.
The penultimate stop is the biometric cabin, where they take your picture and fingerprints and check them against their database to make sure you don’t have a record. I waited for about two hours before, finally, it was my turn. At least seven men – regular Pakistan soldiers and uniformed militiamen employed by the Pakistani military – each with his own computer, were sitting at desks inside the cabin. I walked up to one of the desks where a soldier took my ID and looked it over. He noted that I spoke English and Urdu and asked if I was a teacher. I told him I’d once been a teacher but was no longer teaching. He then nodded and gestured with his hand, rubbing his thumb against his fingers, the universal gesture indicating an expectation of money. I told him I didn’t have any money, but he looked dubious and said I should search my pockets. He shook his head and said he wanted 1,000 rupees (around USD 3.50). After I paid him, he took my picture and asked me to put my fingers on the biometric device, but the machine wasn’t working and he wrote on the back of my tazkira “fingerprint not captured.”
I walked out of the cabin and looked around for my family. It was then my wife’s turn to do the same with the children in the women’s section. I poured myself some tea from the thermos we’d brought from home and sat down to wait. An hour later, my wife came out of the cabin with the kids and handed me our documents. I saw that someone had written “travelling with a woman and eight children” on the back of my tazkira.
As we were leaving the biometric area, we were stopped by a militiaman who also checked my tazkira. He claimed I wasn’t registered in the system. He looked up at one of the several CCTV cameras, pointed to two teenage boys standing next to him and instructed me to give them 4,000 Pakistani rupees (around USD 13). It was a show for the cameras, a way to take a bribe and not be seen to take a bribe. I’ve heard they do give some money to the children at the end of the day, but most of the loot they keep for themselves. I had no choice but to pay up. If I were to decline or make a fuss, we’d have been delayed for several hours or, God forbid, could have been turned back altogether.
As one hour gave way to the next, the crowd was getting more and more impatient and truth be told, I was a little afraid a dispute might break out between people in the queue or a firefight between the Afghan and Pakistani soldiers on opposing sides of the border, as sometimes happens. These clashes are not unheard of. There have been several in the past decade in the very place where I was standing. On this day, things were relatively orderly, though, and the Pakistani militiamen were not beating people in the crowd as they’ve sometimes done in the past. A man I was chatting to in the queue told me that last year, an Afghan border guard, who was upset about a video of a Pakistani border guard manhandling an Afghan woman at the Torkham border in Nangrahar province that was making the rounds on social media, had shot and killed a Pakistani militiaman. Now, he said, the Pakistanis were very careful about how they treated people crossing the border.
Finally, the last hurdle. An angry-looking man in civilian clothes asked for my ID. He looked it over and sent me to a nearby cabin where they were vaccinating people for Covid-19. I’d forgotten my vaccination card at home and, even though I’d been immunised several times, I had to get another shot or pay 600 Pakistani rupees (USD 2) to avoid the jab. I’d been planning on getting a booster vaccine when I returned from my trip, so I happily offered my arm to the medic. And with that, I was finally allowed to step out of the crossing point and join my family, also newly vaccinated, in Pakistan.
My uncle and his sons, who’d been smuggled into Pakistan, had arrived at the bus stop several hours before us! They were waiting at Manda and ready to go. They’d already secured a minibus to carry our entire group the rest of the way to my family’s house in Quetta, which took another six hours.
It was already dark by the time we arrived, dusty and road weary, in need of a wash and some sleep. But the fatigue disappeared entirely as soon as we walked up to the gate. The whole family was waiting for our arrival. There were hugs and cheers, as well as some tears. There was tea ready to pour and my mother’s famous sweet bread rolls baked especially for us. In the lively sitting room, the children made shy, tentative gestures to reacquaint themselves with their cousins, but as for me, I was already thinking of the long journey back.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour
This article was last updated on 12 Sep 2023