The journey to the border had been torturous, a five-hour ordeal amid an agglomeration of thousands of people walking just a few meters through the crossing between Spin Boldak, in Afghanistan, and Chaman, in Pakistan.
The EU begins to negotiate with Pakistan the management of Afghan refugees
When 24-year-old Sherab Khan from the Qarghayi district in Afghanistan’s Laghman province finally crossed, he breathed a sigh of relief. “We all want to leave that hell behind,” says Khan. “Yes, that’s what we call Afghanistan now: hell.”
Since Kabul fell to the Taliban, the world has watched in horror as the city’s airport has become the scene of deadly chaos, with thousands of Afghans crowding the gates in an attempt to flee on flights from evacuation, and being crushed or being shot in the middle of the disorder.
However, similar scenes of despair have occurred at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossing.
An “unprecedented” number of people are crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan through the official border crossing, according to local authorities. This Friday, after the devastating attack at the Kabul airport, the number of people crowding the border increased even more.
Daily crossings triple
Although Pakistan has said it will not accept any Afghan refugees, the Spin Boldak-Chaman overland border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan has remained open, with tens of thousands of Afghans crossing over in recent days.
Only people who travel to Pakistan for medical treatment or who have proof of residency in the country are allowed to cross, but smugglers have been helping families cross the border.
“In the past two days there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of Afghans and refugees entering Pakistan from various provinces in Afghanistan. Even more people have crossed into Chaman today than yesterday,” they have said this Friday to The Guardian sanitary sources premises on condition of anonymity.
Another person who was in the area says the numbers at the border almost doubled on Friday.
Every day, tens of thousands of people have congregated at the border. Some 20,000 have crossed daily, almost triple the usual 6,000. On August 13, just before Kabul fell to the Taliban, they crossed 21,000.
Among those fleeing are Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, as well as Tajiks and minorities such as the Hazara Shiites.
Pakistan already hosts the majority of the more than two million Afghans registered abroad. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is preparing for up to half a million people or more to flee Afghanistan in the “worst case” in the coming months, with the majority likely to flee to Pakistan.
Officially, the Pakistani government has denied that there has been a massive exodus of Afghans who have entered the country illegally through the border crossing. “We do not allow Afghan refugees to enter and cross our border. There may have been some individual cases, but there is no influx,” said Liaquat Shahwani, spokesman for the Balochistan state government.
Shahwani has said that those who cross would be confined in the refugee camps that are being built in the border areas, and has asked UNHCR and other international agencies to help build and manage them. Balochistan, the region in which the border city of Chaman is located, is already one of the most turbulent and war-torn regions of Pakistan.
“Everyone is afraid”
This Thursday, there were dusty scenes of chaos and despair in Chaman. Tens of thousands of women, men and children were seen pushing and stepping on each other to cross from Afghanistan.
The women stayed close to their male companions; some people fainted and children screamed as they were pushed. Some elderly people, women, and luggage were brought to Chaman in wheelbarrows. Dozens of cars were waiting for the refugees to take them to their different destinations.
Some were going to Quetta, a nearby city in Pakistan, but many said they planned to travel to Europe.
Khan was among those who have left Afghanistan in search of freedom. “We did not choose this life and this war, but the US imposed the Taliban on us and left. They should allow us to enter the US or the West.”
The journey through Afghanistan to reach Spin Boldak, the Afghan side of the border, is also fraught with dangers. The roads leading to the crossing from Kandahar province and other regions have been destroyed by bombs and mines. Checkpoints that were previously held by Afghan forces are now controlled by the Taliban.
Naib Khan, 25, sold a horse carriage to finance his trip to Pakistan. He crossed the border late Thursday afternoon with his relatives. It took three days and sleepless nights to reach Chaman from Kabul.
“Everyone is scared in Afghanistan,” he says. “They fear the Taliban. There is uncertainty. No one knows what will happen tomorrow. There is fear in the air since the Taliban took power. Everyone suspects that Afghanistan will be stained with blood and that there will be a civil war.”
“Everybody says there is no future. That’s why we left our home, ”says Khan.
62-year-old Faiz Mohammad, along with 15 family members, fled Nangarhar province. He arrived in Chaman on Thursday.
“I am ashamed to leave my home at this age, but what can I do?” He says. “For a young man it is easy to leave home, but an older man wants to live and die in his home and be buried there. I had no choice but to flee for my children. The war has left us homeless. Pakistan and all countries should open their borders to us, ”he says.
He believes that staying in Afghanistan would be resigning himself to dying. “We cannot be in Afghanistan under the Taliban and feel alive.”
Among those fleeing was Mir Zaman from the Bati Kot district of Nangarhar province, who previously worked as a laborer. Now, he says, there is no work in Afghanistan.
“We lost our job and to survive we need to work. That is why we have come to Pakistan,” says Zaman. “The Taliban are asking us to stay and not leave the country, but how can we stay in a country that has no future?”
With information from Hannah Ellis-Petersen from Delhi.
This article has been updated and slightly expanded by the editors of elDiario.es.
Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies.