Nimra is among the thousands of people who cross the Torkham border daily. Many do so with valid visas and other travel documents. Not so Nimra, who travels between the two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan — twice a day, without any legal travel document.
The four-year-old is one of the youngest bread-winners in her family. She traverses the border in a tube especially built for pedestrian travel, which links Pakistan with Afghanistan.
Wearing mud-ridden shoes, Nimra carries a small bag on her back — and big dreams in her eyes. Inside the bag are cigarettes she is bringing from Afghanistan to sell on the Pakistani side of the Torkham border, where her clients — the paymasters for her wares — are waiting, just outside the immigration counter. Over the years, Torkham has remained the largest trade route between the two countries, with an annual trade worth billions of rupees.
Nimra candidly responded to queries posed to her when she was stopped for a quick chat. She readily disclosed that for her, going to school isn’t an option, as she had to start earning soon after the death of her father.
“Each trip I take earns me Rs 500 to Rs 1,000. I give all my earnings to my mother, who has been in charge of our family and home after my father’s passing,” said Nimra. Currently nine of her siblings — brothers and sisters — are involved in the same ‘business’ as her. She continued, “Kids of my age do go to school in Afghanistan, but the majority of these are boys.”
I wonder, is Nimra an exception to the rule in the work she has been tasked to pursue? The answer is a resounding “no.” From dawn to dusk, Nimra, alongside hundreds of other children, ply the same route between the Pak-Afghan border, carrying the same wares, engaged in the same trade. Living on both sides of Torkham, children between the age of 4 to 12 years, are put to work to help feed their increasingly impoverished families.
Another young girl, Nooria, who accompanies Nimra on her daily travels, tells Bol News that she has been crossing the border in the tube for the last one year. However, according to Nooria, the Taliban have placed restrictions on this sort of trade since taking command of the country last year. “In the past, I used to travel across the border and back several times a day,” she says, “but this has been whittled down to one or two trips daily since last year.”
For Nooria, Pakistan has been a blessing, as many families depend on journeys like hers to meet their day-to-day needs. And despite the recent restrictions, the smuggling of perfumes, cigarettes, blades, creams, etc continues even after the Taliban takeover in August 2021.
During a recent tour of the border, it was learnt that the Immigration, Customs and Security officials on both sides of the border have long been aware of the unique methods employed to smuggle small goods into Pakistan by young children. They do occasionally apprehend the carriers, but later free them with a warning.
According to an Immigration official, a large number of families, predominantly from the Shinwari tribe, reside on both sides of the Torkham border. Among these are many children, who are heavily depended upon to muster their families’ livelihood.
“We don’t take strict action against them, because we know that a lot of families on both sides of the border depend on this tricky illegal trade for their daily bread,” disclosed an Immigration official, requesting anonymity, when questioned about the cross-border smuggling. He added, “A large number of families would starve to death if we stopped these children from moving back and forth to ply their wares.” He continued that given the dearth of jobs in the area and the country’s increasingly precarious political and economic situation, people are sometimes compelled by circumstance to devise illegal means to feed their families.
The immigration official further shared that some of the children engaged in smuggling even travel under moving trucks to cross the border with their wares in small bags attached to their bodies. He said many kids have lost their lives over the years while strapped under large containers and trucks. “Only yesterday, two small kids died on the spot when they came under the tyres of a moving container,” he revealed. But, he asked, “what is the humane solution to this overall tragic situation?”
Speaking to Bol News, a security official deployed at the Torkham border admitted the security personnel deployed in the area don’t stop children from plying the border, but, he maintained, they keep a close eye on their movement through CCTV cameras to prevent any untoward incident.