TOPICS > Politics

On Afghan-Pakistan Border, a Daily Struggle to Survive

June 24, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now families struggling for survival in eastern Afghanistan. Our story comes from special correspondent Nima Elbagir.

NIMA ELBAGIR: The road to Tsasubi Village on the Afghan border with Pakistan, one of the major trafficking routes in and out of the country. And despite the dangers, Tsasubi Village elders say that along this border smuggling has become the only means of survival.

Amir Khan said his whole family relies on his 12-year-old grandson, Jawid’s, smuggling.

AMIR KHAN (through translator): If I don’t let him cross the border, we will die of hunger. I am old, and he will not allow me to work anymore. We worry about him until he arrives home, but we have to do this. We won’t even have a piece of bread for the evening meal if he doesn’t bring some money.

The rise of smuggling

NIMA ELBAGIR: We're in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. Five years ago, the villagers here were told to stop growing poppy plants. And since then, Nangarhar has become the poster province for poppy eradication.

The U.S. especially has emphasized their cooperation with the Afghan government in the eradication drive and their funding of economic and social development to provide alternative livelihoods, but the villagers say they've fallen deeper and deeper into poverty.

And Tsasubis' direct access to the Khyber Pass, the main route into Pakistan, has made this remote outcrop a smuggling hub for both locals and insurgents.

AMIR KHAN (through translator): Four years ago, we were told, if we do not grow poppies, we will be provided for. But after that, they didn't even appear.

Since we have stopped growing poppies, we have not received aid from anybody. I swear, we have not received anything. Only one American man came once.

NIMA ELBAGIR: So he told us they turned to smuggling.

AMIR KHAN (through translator): This is our mountain. This is our country, the place of my birth. We don't have any schools so our children can escape this life. We don't have any doctors to tend to us, and we don't have any other way to survive.

Children are main smugglers

NIMA ELBAGIR: But between the Taliban who themselves rely on this smuggling route and the border police, it's too dangerous for the adults, so it's the children who go. If they're captured, they're beaten, but at least they're usually released.

AFGHAN BOY (through translator): We're really scared when we cross the border. If either side captures us, they'll take our flour and our money.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Forty kilometers away at Torkham is the official border crossing, but even here, in full view of the authorities, there are children struggling to support their families by risking their own lives.

I asked this little girl where she was coming from.

And what have you brought with you?

Flour. How much flour have you brought?

AFGHAN GIRL (through translator): It's 10 kilograms.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Was does your family think?

AFGHAN GIRL (through translator): My family knows that it is bad.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Do you ever get stopped?

AFGHAN GIRL (through translator): Yes, the police recently caught me and beat me.

NIMA ELBAGIR: And who have you brought the flour in for?

AFGHAN GIRL (through translator): There's a businessman we work for.

NIMA ELBAGIR: How much do you get paid to bring that flour in?

AFGHAN GIRL (through translator): I get paid 13 Pakistani rupees for each 20 kilograms I carry.

Only children can cross border

NIMA ELBAGIR: Thirteen Pakistani rupees is the equivalent of 16 U.S. cents for each two-mile roundtrip, and often they have to make the crossing several times a day to earn enough money to take home.

In 2007, Pakistan banned all wheat exports to Afghanistan, but the rising cost of staples has pushed the business underground where it's flourishing on child labor.

The children tell us the businessmen they work for buy each bag of flour for 300 Pakistani rupees and sell it on for 1,000 rupees, more than three times the original price. This little boy is taking scrap metal to be sold in Pakistan.

Who are you taking this for?

AFGHAN BOY (through translator): There are some people that side of the border who buy it as scrap.

NIMA ELBAGIR: So why are you taking it over the border, not the businessman?

AFGHAN BOY (through translator): Only children can get over this border. The man I work for beats me if I refuse to take it.

'A new chapter in desperation'

NIMA ELBAGIR: For decades, the nearly 2,500-kilometer border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has remained porous and volatile. Today, the International Organization of Migration estimates that there are over 200 illicit crossing points which the Afghan government is aware of but lacks the resources to man.

And with the growing insecurity, the chances of the promises of aid made to them being fulfilled grow even less likely. In Tsasubi, they say they're losing hope.

AMIR KHAN (through translator): We have no schools or hospitals. We have no factories for our children to work. We were illiterate here. None of us had any education. And now I worry that the same thing will happen to our children, that they'll have no future. What shall I do? You tell me.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Smuggling and the risks that come with it has always been an accepted part of people's lives here, but risking their children's lives heralds a new chapter in desperation.