Covid protocols become transit bottlenecks

April 26, 2020

Problems mount for travellers stranded on both sides of Pak-Afghan border

The closure of Pak-Afghan border crossings since March 16 has resulted in a painful suspension of the movement of people and goods.

Those stranded on both sides of the Torkham and Chaman crossings face multiple problems due to the lockdown.

When Pakistan finally opened the border for three days last week, around 4,000 Afghans waiting at the Torkham crossing were in dire straits. They included traders, students, patients needing medical attention and nearly 125 members of the Tableghi Jamaat returning from Raiwind. The closure of the border crossing had left them with nowhere to go.

Torkham, the border town of the same name in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, remained crowded for weeks as people on both sides anxiously waited for the gates to open to let them through.

A large number of Afghans were waiting in Torkham in Khyber district.

Pakistani authorities and tribesmen extended hospitality to the stranded Afghans but all they wanted was to be able to go home as soon as possible.

When Pakistan finally decided to reopen the border on humanitarian grounds to let the stranded Afghans cross over, several videos of mostly young men screaming with joy while crossing the border became viral.

Later, some Afghan border officials accused Pakistan of allowing thousands of people to cross unhindered. They said that those returning to Afghanistan might have included coronavirus carriers.

Pakistani authorities said they had earlier been under pressure from Afghan officials to let the stranded Afghans return to their homeland.

For Pakistanis, particularly those stranded for nearly a month at Torkham on the Afghan side, the wait was even more frustrating.

Their numbers weren’t as large and they said they were ready to be quarantined and tested for coronavirus on entering Pakistan. They said there were no facilities to talk of on the Afghan side.

Their families and well-wishers were using all means, including protest demonstrations, to press the government to allow them to cross the border.

The decision to open the border was taken in view of the surge of Afghans wanting to return home. Islamabad also kept in view the sensitivity of the Pak-Afghan relations as prickly Afghan officials are quick to start complaining.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had issued special instructions for opening the border for three days following a public appeal by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s former chief executive in the national unity government with President Ashraf Ghani.

Dr Abdullah thanked the prime minister for the gesture but certain anti-Pakistan elements in Afghanistan objected to it.

Once the stranded Afghans had gone home over a three-day period, the Pakistanis waiting on the Afghan side were let in to be reunited with their families.

The Pakistanis who had been stranded in Torkham expressed anger at both Kabul and Islamabad. They accused the Afghan border officials of mistreating them. Some of them said they didn’t have any place to sleep on the Afghan side.

Many Pakistanis returning home via Torkham have tested positive for coronavirus. Over a three-day period, 713 Pakistanis crossed into Pakistan.

Others complained that while the government had brought home those stranded in other countries on board special flights, it had ignored Pakistanis sleeping on the roadside in Afghanistan.

The stranded Pakistanis who spoke to the media claimed that about 700 of them, including women and children, were stuck at the Afghan Torkham and around 800 at Spin Boldak, the border town in Kandahar across from Chaman in Balochistan.

Only trucks transporting goods, particularly eatables, were allowed to cross the Chaman border, they said.

The prices in Afghanistan’s provinces bordering Pakistan, and even in Kabul, register an increase whenever the border is closed for security reasons or when Islamabad takes tough measures to curb smuggling.

The price hike in Afghan markets also contributes to anti-Pakistan sentiment and results in renewed efforts by the Afghan government to reduce dependence on Pakistan for its imports.

Pakistan’s worst fears were realized when a number of Pakistanis returning home via Torkham tested positive for coronavirus. Over the three-day period, 713 Pakistanis, including 177 women and 90 children crossed over into Pakistan.

Among them were traders, drivers, construction and education and health workers.

Of particular interest were 195 truck drivers and their helpers who also brought home 101 trucks. When 108 of them were tested, 37 were found coronavirus positive. They were taken to the quarantine centres established in Khyber district and their vehicles were fumigated.

The high incidence of the disease among the returning Pakistanis caused alarm among Pakistani authorities and has necessitated expediting the testing and tightening of the quarantine facilities.

The government had made preparations beforehand to receive the returning people at Torkham and Chaman and to shift them to the quarantine centres for testing and isolation and then to the high-dependency units in hospitals in case some of them tested positive for the virus.

Seven quarantine centres were set up at Landikotal, Jamrud and Bara in the Khyber district with an overall capacity of 1,500 patients.

The high number of Covid-19 positive cases among Pakistanis staying in Afghanistan is also an indication that the situation in Afghanistan is alarming.

The lack of testing facilities and poor health infrastructure is the reason for the relatively small number of coronavirus cases documented in Afghanistan. Fears are being expressed that the pandemic could become acute if preventive measures, including social distancing, are not implemented.

It has been estimated that about 1,500 Pakistanis were stuck in Afghanistan when the Covid-19 pandemic forced Pakistan to shut the two official crossing-points.

Many are still in Afghanistan, apparently sorting out their leave and wage accounts with their employers and getting their documents verified from the Pakistani mission to be able to enter Pakistan. The government may have to briefly reopen the border again to let them in.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

Covid protocols become transit bottlenecks