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Scenes From The Afghanistan-Pakistan Border

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A commercial flight left Kabul this week, carrying more than a hundred people out of the country. It was the first since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. Even though the airport is open again, many people have resorted to getting out overland. Our co-host, Steve Inskeep, takes us to one of the major crossings from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The crossing is in a mountain valley near the Afghan border. We wanted to understand what we'd be looking at, so on the way we stopped at the city of Peshawar, which is guarded by a massive brick fortress, centuries old.

SARFRAZ KHAN: This region is somehow caught between various empires.

INSKEEP: We had coffee with Sarfraz Khan (ph), who teaches at the local university. We were on our way to the Khyber Pass, used by traders and invaders, from Alexander the Great to the British Empire. In the 1980s, U.S.-backed militants ranged into Afghanistan from here. In the 2000s, Taliban militants attacked on both sides of the border. The ethnic Pashtuns who inhabit this region crossed back and forth.

KHAN: There was practically no border.

INSKEEP: But in recent years, Pakistan tightened security. A fence now climbs the mountain slopes and makes it harder to slip across these days.

KHAN: Yesterday, I had a call from my daughter, and she said that there are a few young girls and that they want to come to Pakistan. They are very scared. They got a small baby, no male accompanying them. And can you do something for them?

INSKEEP: Professor Khan says he'd pick them up if they reach Pakistan, but he doesn't know how they can cross.

KHAN: Where right now you are sitting, just a kilometer (ph) away, you have a place known as Torkham. That is the border check post between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Torkham was our destination. The road through the Khyber Pass weaves up into dry craggy mountains.

We're now climbing, doing a series of switchbacks up the mountain.

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: My ears just popped.

INSKEEP: That's our editor, Arezou Rezvani. Three miles from the border, we began passing a line of parked trucks.

One colorful truck after another by the side of the road.

REZVANI: There are guys taking naps under their trucks. That's how long they have to wait in line.

INSKEEP: We had permission to drive to the very edge of Pakistan, so close that our phones switched over to the Afghan network.

REZVANI: I just got a ping - welcome to Afghanistan. Calls cost $2.99 a minute.

INSKEEP: I guess that means you've made it.

We reached the Pakistani checkpoint, a few old buildings at the bottom of the dusty valley.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Here we are.

INSKEEP: We parked near waiting trucks as the hot sun dipped behind a mountain. The border was lined with bougainvillea - great purple and white flowers along an iron fence. The road itself was wide open, without even a painted line, though gunmen stood on that road near a white Taliban flag.

We're just a few feet from the place where people are having their documents checked. There are vehicles in this lane, and then over on the other side of this fence, a line of people.

We were so close that one of our colleagues reached over into Afghanistan and handed his NPR business card to a black-turbaned Taliban official. Next to him, a Taliban guard wore a crisp green uniform with a blue patch saying Afghan National Police, a uniform bought for the old U.S.-backed force. Anything in Afghanistan is now under Taliban control.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE AMBIENCE)

INSKEEP: Massive trucks rolled into Afghanistan, carrying concrete and other supplies. Trucks rolled out of Afghanistan piled high with onions and grapes. The trucks are decorated with metal chains that jingle as they roll. But our focus was the line of people on a long walkway lined by iron bars. It wasn't a mob scene. A few hundred people stood quietly in line. Dr. Rahmatullah Alakkozai (ph) was allowed to cross. Through the fence, he told us he traveled here from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif because he fears for the future. His language, Dari, is similar to our editor Arezou's Persian.

Why does he think the Taliban will not govern well?

REZVANI: (Speaking Persian).

RAHMATULLA ALAKKOZAI: (Speaking Dari).

REZVANI: He says it's actually fine right now, but the future is uncertain.

INSKEEP: He doubts the Taliban because of the way they governed the last time they were in power. Only one or two people seem to be let through at a time. Pakistan has said it can't take more refugees, having received millions from the past 40 years of war. But it will let in people who have documents to travel onward. The doctor says he can move with relatives to Germany. Other people at this crossing are moving in the opposite direction. They're crossing northward into Afghanistan. We watched an elderly man return.

(CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: People lifted him from a Pakistani wheelchair to an Afghan one and rolled him across. Another man, Sayyid al-Rahman (ph), is Pakistani. He's returning to the Afghan medical school he's been attending. He says he thinks Afghanistan is safer now that the Americans are gone.

Why was it unsafe when America was there?

SAYYID AL-RAHMAN: Because there was no signal of dropping bombs from helicopters and planes.

INSKEEP: The Americans had helicopters and planes, and you thought they might kill you.

AL-RAHMAN: When you are sleeping, then the helicopters were flying over the roof. And everything was - big tremors, big tremors.

INSKEEP: Tremors from the bombs hitting.

AL-RAHMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Lots.

INSKEEP: The most desperate people on the Pakistani side of the border were those waiting. Pakistani Mohammad Kassem (ph) has been waiting for a relative to come out. He said the relative was just on the other side.

MOHAMMAD KASSEM: (Through interpreter) They have American passport, and they want to go to America. But authorities are not letting them in. Citizens. Citizens American.

INSKEEP: They're American citizens. Where are they now?

KASSEM: (Through interpreter) Behind the border.

INSKEEP: They're at this border crossing just a few hundred meters this way.

His relatives said they arrived without a document needed from Pakistan's interior ministry and, after waiting hours, returned home to Kabul in defeat. We could not confirm the relatives' U.S. citizenship, but the U.S. State Department has said it is helping all Americans who want to go. People at this crossing say only a few hundred travelers make it through per day, though commerce of many kinds is moving. By the Pakistani checkpoint, we spotted 15 kids - boys and girls - sitting on the ground by stacks of old tires. They were holding burlap sacks. One of the kids, who said he was 10, is an Afghan cigarette smuggler who regularly is sent into Pakistan.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Through interpreter) By ourselves. We go by ourselves.

INSKEEP: The Afghan children sneak into the giant cargo trucks, hiding in the toolbox or in the spare tire well or even under the truck between the axles. If they don't fall off and die, they may make it to Pakistan to sell their goods. But on this day, the Pakistani inspectors found these kids on various trucks.

(CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: And on a signal from an official, the Afghan children picked up their sacks and hurried back across the Afghan border, running home.

MARTINEZ: That's our colleague, Steve Inskeep, reporting from Pakistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.