Every single day, Khaista Khan* regrets his decision to run away from home. His dreams of becoming a breadwinner, confident and independent, have been shattered; he now lives at the mercy of truck drivers, shopkeepers and border security officials. When he arrived at the Pak-Afghan Torkham border in search of a job, little did he know that he would be recruited as a smuggler, ferrying goods back and forth across the border. He manages to make up to Rs500 a day, but at too high a cost. He has been beaten, exploited and sexually abused. He is only nine years old.
Khaista Khan is one of the many children at the Torkham border who suffer from abuse at the hands of smugglers and their agents, as well as Khasadars, the frontier Corps and the Afghan police. In the aftermath of 9/11, many Pakistani and Afghani children who were internally displaced and possessed little resources flocked to the Pak-Afghan border, where small businesses have been on the rise. Today, more than 1,100 children between 6-18 years of age, including young girls, work at the border, the majority being involved in the smuggling of goods for just Rs300-500 a day. Many lose their lives in traffic accidents. Some of these children are arrested, and some become drug addicts. All are ruthlessly exploited.
Smugglers on both sides of the Torkham border use teenage boys and girls so that they are able to escape the prying eyes of security officials. But this practice is neither new, and nor is it unknown to the authorities. The smugglers and their agents continue to profit from black money, while many of these young children have not even set foot in the boundaries of a school.
With moist eyes and a face hardened beyond his years, a child-smuggler choosing to remain anonymous says, “Whenever the Pakistani Khasadars or Afghan Border Security Personnel see us, they beat us with sticks and hurl abuses at us”.
Still, the Khasadars and the border security officials, on a spectrum, present only a minute threat to these children. “Employers, shopkeepers, truck and taxi drivers, businessmen and other people exploit children’s needs and sexually abuse them,” the child tells me, adding that he knows many who were raped by their employers.
A few months ago, ten year old Mashwara Bibi* was raped at Torkham. The case was reported to the Afghan and Pakistani security officials, but no action has been taken against the accused truck-drivers as yet. Devastated, the father of the child was forced to relocate from Torkham and laments, “though she is innocent, yet no one will accept her as wife”.
While Mashwara Bibi’s father demands justice, some families hesitate to follow suit due to ‘cultural sensitivities’. The only international organisation operating in the Torkham border area is Terra Des Hommes (TDH), a Swiss Charity working in Afghanistan. Baryalai Hasrat, a child protection officer working with TDH states that 186 suspected sexual abuse cases were detected in 2011-12 alone. According to Qazi Jawad, the Juvenile Justice Coordinator at the same organisation, many of these cases are under process in special courts in the Afghan city of Jalalabad, and separate rehabilitation centres have been established for juvenile criminals as well as for the victims. Many of the child victims are from single-parent families and this makes their condition doubly painful for their loved ones.
When I brought these issues to the notice of border officials, a Pakistani official rebuffed the claims of the children and the locals, insisting that no one reported incidents of child molestation or sexual abuse to the concerned authorities. He did sheepishly admit that the government actually does not have any proper mechanisms to eradicate such menaces, if they exist at all.
According to him, the legal transportation of goods across the border had reduced the number of working children at the Torkham border. “They pay taxes and custom duties, so the businessmen want to do their business through a legal process without depending on smugglers,” the Pakistani official said. Additionally, he claimed that a night patrolling team of Khasadars was in place to control crimes in the border area.
But there seem to be some discrepancies between the reports of the officials, and the testimonies of the locals and the victims. What makes matters worse is the attitude of the police in such crimes, ranging from utter negligence to direct involvement.
Shama Gul*, a shopkeeper in Torkham, recounted the story of a young boy from Chitral who was sexually exploited by the Afghan police last month. Although a report was lodged with the officials at Torkham, no action was taken by the Afghan police. Amidst this lack of compliance by police and security officials, Shama Gul* questions: “Who will protect these kids? The government of Pakistan and national NGOs are not doing anything for them. No national or international organisation is coming to their help. Even the local elders and officials posted at Torkham border have failed to protect these children.”
Locals claim that there are few organisations with legal mechanisms to protect the rights of children. Little international attention has been given to these child smugglers. Although TDH has been providing alternative jobs and daily wages to children at the Torkham border, no equivalent organisation exists on the Pakistani side. Young children recruited for smuggling are reduced to an alien status on both sides of the border, abandoned by all, with no rights and no recourse to help or rehabilitation. At best, these young children are reduced to figures and statistics. Their stories remain unheard.
In the face of these ongoing abuses across the Pak-Afghan border, who is to blame? Or more importantly, why have the government officials, civil society members, religious scholars and local elders become silent spectators in this crime against children? These are questions that need to be answered.
*names have been changed to protect privacy
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 3rd, 2013.
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