The Most Porous Border
Story and photo by Tim Brookes

Traveling between the countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan is as simple as passing a sign—much easier than delivering vaccines for polio.

Pakistan Afghanistan border

Our first stop, on the way to visit the polio vaccination team on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, is to pick up our armed guard. He’s waiting for us at a police checkpoint west of Peshawar, the capital of the Northwest Frontier province. Technically, he’s an off-duty cop, but a rather militarized one: he proudly shows us his Kalashnikov that he has modified by removing its safety. He sits on the tailgate of the first vehicle, a pickup; I’m sitting in the front seat of the UN Land Cruiser following right behind. As the road devolves into a series of river bends and the vehicles start bouncing about, I wish he had kept the safety.

Pakistan guard and child

I’m writing a book about the global campaign to eradicate polio, taking a first-hand look at the difficulties in fighting a virus in a war zone. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan have endemic wild poliovirus; the vaccinators at the border are trying to interdict it, as though it were contraband.

We have an armed guard, even though we’re a medical mission, because of the bizarrely muddied reputation in these parts of the UN, the WHO, and the polio program in particular. The UN is often equated with the US, the polio program has been depicted by radicals in Pakistan and Nigeria as a secret sterilization program, and periodically a vaccinator is abducted or killed. It doesn’t help that, not long after my visit to the Northwest Frontier, the CIA reportedly used a fake polio vaccination team to gather DNA samples and thereby identify, locate and kill a certain Osama bin Laden.

Into the Lawless Lands

We leave Landi Kotal, a town that featured prominently in the book The World’s Most Dangerous Places, and the road tips into a series of steep downward hairpins, an intestine of a road. Trucks shift down to their lowest gear and inch along, cars and buses passing them on both sides in a game of chicken with each other, and with gravity.

Eventually the pass flattens out and widens, and plays host to a most colorful and filthy flotsam of structures and vehicles. It’s as if a flash flood has swept Landi Kotal, already ramshackle, down the pass, hooting and hollering, and the whole mess has finally been deposited downstream on both sides of the road, most of it more or less upright. This is Torkham, the border town.

Stalls sell everything that can be eaten, stolen or smuggled. Vehicles, mostly rusted and scruffy, point in all directions, some of them moving. On all sides, people of a dozen races and tribes, dressed in all manner of wild clothing, cackle and yak and point and cling to the roofs of buses and the backs of trucks. It’s like Tijuana, but less prim.

Pakistan Afghanistan road traffic

In the final few hundred yards before the border proper with Afghanistan, this assorted mayhem develops more of a sense of purpose. The structures acquire an air of raffish semi-permanence and claim to be hotels and government buildings. The downhill traffic organizes itself into a multicolored mechanical Chinese carnival dragon that parades smokily toward Afghanistan, passing ten-year-old boys trudging uphill with bulky green plastic trash bags over their shoulders.

flak jacket seller

Our guide Rudi tells me the bags contain smuggled engine parts that the children will lug all the way back over the Khyber Pass—the arid, baked mountainous pass that defeated the British Army--and down into Pakistan for resale. A teenage boy sells camouflaged flak jackets.

Afghanistan is only yards away, and staring down the road I can see Container Town, where metal cargo containers dumped by the smugglers have been converted into shops and housing, their metal frames surely too hot to touch as the sun approaches midday.

The only thing missing is the border itself--or rather, any kind of official border post. No barriers. No barbed wire. No security cameras. No warnings about produce that might convey pests and diseases. No officials scowling at documents. Pretty much all there is to mark the transition between republics consists of the word AFGHANISTAN set into the dry escarpment opposite, and facing it, a metal sign saying WEL COME TO PAKISTAN/KHYBER RIFLES/PEPSI.

What this border, probably the most porous in the world, does have is vaccinators. Four or five teenage boys surround two Igloo-style coolers that contain the oral vaccine. (An Afghan team patrols the other side of the border.) They don’t seem to be making much effort to canvass the gaudy, overcrowded buses to see if there are children on board between six months and five years old. They have the desultory air of family planning volunteers handing out condoms at a Grateful Dead show.

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Read this article online at: The Most Porous Border

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