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At Pakistan’s Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A Taliban guard stands on the Afghanistan side of Torkham, the border with Pakistan. People behind wait to leave or for those returning to Afghanistan.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A Taliban guard stands on the Afghanistan side of Torkham, the border with Pakistan. People behind wait to leave or for those returning to Afghanistan.

Claire Harbage/NPR

TORKHAM, Pakistan — Although the Kabul airport has opened again to international flights, many Afghans are still trying to flee overland, through major border crossings like the one in Torkham, Pakistan.

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

Taliban and people waiting in Afghanistan can be seen from the Pakistan border crossing at Torkham.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

Taliban and people waiting in Afghanistan can be seen from the Pakistan border crossing at Torkham.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Nestled into the mountainous valley of the Khyber Pass, used by traders and invaders from Alexander the Great to the British Empire, Torkham became a route that U.S.-backed mujahideen took into Afghanistan in the 1980s. It is part of a region “caught between various empires,” says Sarfraz Khan, a Peshawar University international relations professor.

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

The Taliban flag hangs on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in front of the mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

The Taliban flag hangs on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in front of the mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Claire Harbage/NPR

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

People wait on the Afghanistan side at Torkham border, either to leave the country or greet returnees.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

People wait on the Afghanistan side at Torkham border, either to leave the country or greet returnees.

Claire Harbage/NPR

In recent years, Pakistan has tightened security. A 1,600-mile fence built in 2017 by the Pakistani military now climbs the dry, craggy mountain slopes and makes it harder to slip into Pakistan from Afghanistan.

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

The border fencing between Pakistan and Afghanistan extends up the mountains near Torkham.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

The border fencing between Pakistan and Afghanistan extends up the mountains near Torkham.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Uncertainty after the Taliban seized power helped create a backlog of deliveries, and brightly painted cargo trucks carrying everything from onions to construction materials can wait days to cross the border. While stuck, some truckers roll out carpets for an afternoon nap under the shade of their vehicles or gather with other drivers for tea.

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A brightly painted truck passes through Torkham while a Pakistani guard watches.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A brightly painted truck passes through Torkham while a Pakistani guard watches.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

With border traffic at a standstill, men rest under a truck while waiting to get to Afghanistan.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

With border traffic at a standstill, men rest under a truck while waiting to get to Afghanistan.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Razziq Mehmon, 40, is an Afghan who drives a truck loaded with cement bound for Jalalabad, the first major Afghan city across the border. His country has been at war his entire life. After Russians attacked his home village, his family fled and never returned. They’re still in Afghanistan, internally displaced, their lives on hold. They, too, are waiting.

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

Razziq Mehmon (second from right) waits in Pakistan near the border to drive a truck loaded with cement bound for Jalalabad.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

Razziq Mehmon (second from right) waits in Pakistan near the border to drive a truck loaded with cement bound for Jalalabad.

Claire Harbage/NPR

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

Trucks line the road waiting to get through the border to Afghanistan

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

Trucks line the road waiting to get through the border to Afghanistan

Claire Harbage/NPR

The road that leads out of Pakistan and into Afghanistan appears open. Not even a painted line separates the two countries. But the Torkham border crossing is patrolled by armed Pakistani military and Taliban guards and is flanked by Taliban flags. One Taliban guard wears a crisp, green uniform with the blue patch of the ex-Afghan National Police, the old U.S.-backed force.

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A gate at the Torkham border crossing.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A gate at the Torkham border crossing.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A Taliban guard (right) stands adjacent to a Pakistani guard on the Torkham border.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A Taliban guard (right) stands adjacent to a Pakistani guard on the Torkham border.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Border authorities, police and others at this crossing say a few hundred people make it through to the Pakistan side each day.

Pakistan says it cannot take more Afghan refugees, but it does let in Afghans who are seeking medical care or have documents to travel onward. There are more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees registered in Pakistan, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and more who are undocumented.

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

People seeking medical attention wait on the border to enter Pakistan.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

People seeking medical attention wait on the border to enter Pakistan.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Rahmatullah Alakkozai, a doctor who traveled to Torkham from the the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, tells NPR he was allowed through to Pakistan because he can move to Germany, where he has relatives. He says he fears for the future of Afghanistan, even though “things seem fine” at the moment.

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

The Taliban “have shown us what they are capable of in the past with how they flogged women or didn’t allow them to go to school,” says Rahmatullah Alakkozai, a doctor who traveled to Torkham from the the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

The Taliban “have shown us what they are capable of in the past with how they flogged women or didn’t allow them to go to school,” says Rahmatullah Alakkozai, a doctor who traveled to Torkham from the the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Claire Harbage/NPR

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A Pakistani minibus arrives to transport people to and from the border.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A Pakistani minibus arrives to transport people to and from the border.

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The Taliban “have shown us what they are capable of in the past, with how they flogged women or didn’t allow them to go to school,” he says. “If they continue the way they are going then things will be good, but if there are changes to their politics and their approach, things will fall apart again.”

There are others at this crossing who move in the opposite direction. Sayyid al-Rahman, a Pakistani student, is returning to the Afghan medical school he’s been attending. He believes Afghanistan is safer now that the Americans are gone. Now, he says, there is “no signal of dropping bombs from the helicopters and planes.”

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A boy on the Afghan side of the border awaits those returning to Afghanistan through Torkham.

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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

A boy on the Afghan side of the border awaits those returning to Afghanistan through Torkham.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Some try to sneak over the border crossing. A group of Afghan kids, nabbed by Pakistani inspectors, sits by the Pakistani checkpoint holding burlap sacks full of cartons of cigarettes. They are child smugglers who slip into the giant cargo trucks, hiding in the toolbox, the spare tire well. Those who make it across to Pakistan undetected sell their goods in the Torkham border town.

On this day, the stowaways are discovered. Once enough of them are rounded up, a border official whistles them over. The children grab their sacks and hurry back across to Afghanistan.

At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

Birds fly above Torkham.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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At Pakistan's Border With Afghanistan, People Wait To Cross From Both Sides

Birds fly above Torkham.

Claire Harbage/NPR

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