$4 for a one-way trip to Afghanistan
Editor's note: Last night's lead story by Senior Investigative Correspondent Lisa Myers revealed just how easy it is to move between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The two NBC producers aboard the bus, Iqbal Sapand and Mushtaq Yusufzai, wrote this post with the assistance of NBC producer Carol Grisanti in Islamabad.
"What’s your name? What’s your father's name?" asked the manager of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Friendship Bus at the dusty bus station in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province.
He quickly wrote down the names and paternal names of more than 100 passengers all trying to travel to Jalalabad, Afghanistan on two separate buses on Feb. 13. We were surprised that we didn’t need to show our passports or any travel documents, but since we had valid visas, we produced them. All that was required was to pay 250 Pakistani rupees, or $4.00 each, to board.
On the bus were many of our fellow Pashtun tribesmen. No one was worried traveling across the border without travel documents. No one seemed to care.
"I make this trip every Thursday," said an old man with a white beard. "I visit my relatives; no one ever disturbs me, why should they?" he asked us.
We had to agree.
By now the radio in the bus was blasting out familiar Pashtun folk songs as we drove through the fabled Khyber Pass where Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and countless invading armies have marched. Pashtuns do not recognize the border between Afghanistan and our Northwest Frontier Province, called the Durand Line. It was drawn up by the colonial British in 1893 to divide Afghanistan from what was at the time British India. What it has done instead is to divide our tribes and our families. We have uncles and cousins living on both sides of this border. The border treaty was supposed to be renegotiated in 1993, 100 years later. It never has.
Pashtuns are the ethnic group who make up more than 50% of the Afghan population and 15% of Pakistan’s, predominantly in the Northwest Frontier Province and Balouchistan Province. They speak their own language, Pashtu, and abide by their own 5,000-year-old tribal code of Pushtunwali. And Pushtunwali is all about honor.
"I do not recognize this border," said the man sitting across from us, alongside his burqa-clad wife and small child. "I am going to visit with my cousin and then I shall come back to my home."
The bus bumped and rocked up and down the mountain roads racing at a speed of 60 mph toward Torkam, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border post on the Durand Line. Along the way, we passed trucks groaning under heavy loads of goods and cars and vans bulging with families. We reached the border two hours later and were anxious to get off the bus. Once again no one checked; no one asked for documents.
"It is impossible to check everyone," said one overwhelmed Pakistani border official when we asked him how come no one was asking for documents. "How could anyone control this? It is impossible," he said.
According to estimates, 8-10,000 people cross at Torkam every single day, many on foot; the rest in roughly 1,500-2,000 vehicles. Most is the daily traffic of the Pashtun tribesmen visiting relatives or just doing business. And trade is brisk on both sides of the border; money-changers dealing in all kinds of currencies, real and fake, tea shops, stalls selling pirated CDs and DVDs, electronics, clothes, and foods; a paradise of smuggled goods. There is even the "smokers’ corner," which everyone knows as the place to buy hashish.
Back on the bus, there was another two hours to go before we reached Jalalabad, capital of Afghanistan’s Nangahar Province and the first major Afghan city across the Pakistani border. On the left side of the bus, through the red plaid curtained windows, one could see the famous Tora Bora Mountains, probably best known as the place Osama Bin Laden was last seen and escaped from during a fierce battle with U.S. forces in 2001.
In Jalalabad, we spent the night at the Spinzar Hotel, the place where Bin Laden lived when he first came to Afghanistan. The hotel was beautiful, the rooms clean and the food delicious. We wished we could have stayed another night.
At the ramshackle bus office early the next morning, it was time to buy tickets and get back on the bus for the return trip to Peshawar. It was basically the same procedure, as people shouted for the $4.00 seats.
"On both sides of the border people have a lot of problems because they don’t have legal documents," said Wais Niaze, the manager at the privately owned Pakistan-Afghanistan Friendship Bus office in Jalalabad. "But they need to travel, so officials on both sides of the border agreed to relax the rules. Afghanistan is a very poor country. We don’t have the resources to issue passports to everyone who wants to travel."
All the while, the bus driver was shouting: "Peshawar, Peshawar, direct to Peshawar!"
We had to hurry.
Early Nightly is up
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