Journey to the Khyber Pass

Samira Sayed-Rahman details the beautiful and dangerous path across the Afghan-Pakistani border.

By: /
November 14, 2014
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Graduate of the M.A. program in International Relations at McMaster University

“Make sure not to take your passport,” bellowed my cousin from the other room. We were in Kabul packing for a short trip to the Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa region of Pakistan.

When one traditionally thinks of travel, the first thing on the list is always a passport and proper documentation. In this case, think again.

Most of the Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghan border are no-go zones for those possessing a foreign passport. The entire region is littered with military and police checkpoints that frequently demand the production of Pakistani documents. Also, evidence of being, travelling, or working in Afghanistan is viewed negatively and more than often, gets one into quite a lot of trouble. Acquiring a visa to get into Pakistan in general is often a very stressful, arduous, and incredibly invasive process.

Having obtained one a month earlier for travels to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, I certainly wasn’t going to go through the process again. Nor did I have to.

On a map, the 2,640-kilometre border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, called the Durand Line, looks much like any other border. However, in reality, the line’s real location is ambiguous. Despite coming under the lens of the international community since the beginning of America’s occupation of Afghanistan, the border remains extremely porous with little to no monitoring and surveillance. The only real legal crossing is at Torkham, just before the infamous Khyber Pass. However, despite a heavy military presence from the Pakistani, Afghan National Army, and at times American and NATO’s ISAF Forces, the Torkham border post has little to no control over those entering and exiting the country. The border stands as one of the most dangerous in the world, with militants crossing over, weaponry in tow, regular attacks on military supply trucks, and the occasional IED blast.

However, with the recent elections in Afghanistan, as well as ever-increasing tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, we were told that security at Torkham would be strict.

The night before we were to leave, a cloud of paranoia hung over the house with the packing and repacking of bags, ensuring that we were carrying nothing identifying us of being Canadians (some of us being dual citizens), clearing SD cards of photos of Afghanistan, making certain our phones were password protected.

Just after sunrise the next morning, we set off on our journey.

Winding our way by car through the mountains of Miyapar, past the stunning scenery at Sarobi along the road to Jalalabad, and through the dry-lands of Nangrahar, I had to restrain from photographing the incredible landscapes along the way, reminding myself that they would still be there on the way back, once I had successfully entered Pakistan.

The four-hour journey is enough to make one realize why this has been one of the most travelled paths in history.

As we neared the crossing, other Afghan citizens travelling with us removed their Afghan ID cards, hiding them in inside pockets and at the bottom of their bags, and pulled out Pakistani IDs. Many Afghans possess both, having created ‘legitimate’ citizenship records by paying off corrupt officials during their time living in Pakistan as refugees. Challenging our understanding of citizenship, their identity alters upon crossing the abstract Durand Line.

ID cards in place, we passed the burnt remains of NATO supply trucks destroyed by attacks over the years, as we laid eyes on the crowds of people lined up ahead.

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Burnt out NATO supply trucks at the border (Reuters)

Torkham is unlike any border one could expect. Off to the side of the main road is the path for transportation trucks, many which have been lined up there for days and sometimes weeks. As the key NATO supply route, trucks here are monitored significantly, with the border having been closed off multiple times in recent years by Pakistan after disputes with the U.S. or Afghanistan.

But on the main road, travelling across with a personal car is not possible. Instead, one has to get out, walk for 10 to 15 minutes, and then arrange for another method of transportation on the other side.

No place in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province or in Afghanistan showcases the results of more than 40 years of conflict and war as Torkham does. The sick and injured travelling for treatment is the first thing you notice here. Little children in prosthetics, bullet-ridden shops, and the intimidating presence of various military forces, both private and government, fulfill the Western stereotypes of what the region is to look like.

But what is most striking about Torkham is the unexpected moment of ironic equality. Affluent women in heels and designer handbags walk side by side those in old, ripped, blue burqas. Men step out of bullet-proof Mercedes’ in three-piece suits and move aside for sick old men being pushed in makeshift carts. The rich and the poor, the liberal and the conservative, the foreigner and the local, all sweating and walking in the scorching sun.

Looking towards the giant sign looming ahead that reads, “No one will be allowed to cross the border without a passport or a visa,” I prepared myself to recite the story that we had agreed upon: We were from a town outside Jalalabad and were on our way to a wedding in Peshawar.

As I walked, I thought back to my multiple crossings on a previous trip four years prior and how this time I was much more nervous. Worst case scenarios playing in my head, I narrowly missed walking straight into a man in uniform. It was then that I realized the uniforms had changed. Looking up, instead of the Afghan flag, a faded Pakistani flag hung limply from a flagpole.

I had just crossed one of the most dangerous borders on the planet, illegally, and I didn’t even realize it.

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Afghans crossing the border by cart (Reuters)