When Nato tankers would speed along the Peshawar-Torkham highway — that 35-mile expanse of concrete connecting Pakistan to Afghanistan — villagers on both sides of the road would pray for a blast. For the people of Khogakhel, Sultankhel and Sadokhel, a militant attack on an oil tanker carrying fuel to the allied forces in Afghanistan meant the chance to earn some extra cash. Seconds after an explosion, villagers would rush to the site of the blast, scuttling to collect oil from the leaks in the tank.
“A person could easily earn Rs3,000 to Rs10,000 from the business,” says Said Ali Shinwari, an automobile spare parts dealer in Landikotal Bazaar.
“We would be jealous of villagers who’d gotten an opportunity to collect free oil because of an oil tanker blasted by militants in their area,” says Mustaqeem, 35, a resident of Khogakhel village in Landikotal.
All this changed on May 20, 2011, when 15 people were killed in an oil tanker explosion. Mustaqeem’s brothers were among those who died in the fiery aftermath.
Locals say that a broken down oil tanker had been parked on a road bypassing the main highway, near the Government Degree College, Landikotal. But a Nato tanker — whether on the road or parked by the wayside — is always a magnet for militants and, sure enough, this one was blown up in the evening. The real damage though occurred after the villagers gathered to douse the fire. As they put out the flames and set about collecting oil, unknown to them the gas pressure in the tanker was building up. When the second explosion occurred, 15 people were burnt to death, including two of Mustaqeem’s elder brothers.
“At the time of the explosion I was asleep in my home, which is near the place where the oil tanker had been parked. My wife woke me up after hearing the explosions and sent me outside to see what was happening. When I reached the spot, I found 15 burnt bodies, including those of my two brothers near the blazing tanker. A general store nearby had also been gutted,” says Mustaqeem.
The tragic incident shocked the villagers of Khogakhel who started avoiding the main road just to stay out of the way of oil tankers, which they began to think of as “mobile bombs”.
“Before the suspension of Nato supplies, whenever we had to use the Peshawar-Torkham highway, we would fervently recite verses of the Holy Quran and pray for our safety,” says Imshaad, a resident of Sadokhel in Landikotal. Imshaad’s elder brother Shamshad was killed on September 23, 2010, when an oil tanker exploded on the highway, and the fire engulfed both him and a man he was trying to rescue. As he pulled the injured man away from the wreckage, the fire broke out, killing them both.
These oil tankers caused so many deaths that the local people would become frantic every time they heard of a blast on the highway, calling their near and dear ones to inquire about their safety.
For truck drivers like Sahib Ali, who carries transit goods to Afghanistan, Nato oil tankers were an occupational hazard — mobile bombs which could explode any time on the highway causing fatalities and financial loss. While travelling on the deadly route from Peshawar to Torkham, he says, “We would keep our vehicles at a distance from oil tankers for fear of a sudden blast.”
The fear of public transporters was not without foundation — over the past few months, they had witnessed the deaths of a number of passengers and the destruction of at least four coaches which had caught fire from oil tankers exploding near them.
Straddling the border of Khyber Agency, on the fringe of Peshawar, Karkhano Market — famous for its foreign goods — bore the brunt of the attacks on oil tankers.
On July 16, 2011, an oil tanker passing through Karkhano market exploded and the fire engulfed five plazas, killing four people and injuring seven others. Hundreds of shops and cabins were reduced to ashes in the inferno. Lakhkar Khan, who lost a blanket store opposite Khyber Plaza, suffered a loss of Rs3 million. Shops along the main road are subject to the worst damage because of these blasts and Lakhkar Khan sold his store to avoid such an incident in the future.
After all, the July 16 blast is not an isolated incident. Two months before that, in May, another oil tanker blast destroyed a dozen vehicles parked on the roadside in front of Karkhano market.
Rahib Khan, owner of a general store in Wazir Dhand, Jamrud, remembers a shopkeeper in his neighbourhood being killed inside his shop when it was gutted in a fire caused by an oil tanker explosion some two years back. “The passing of Nato oil tankers on this route is a source of continual mental stress. Because of fear of a blast, I park my car at the back of my shop instead of in front of my eyes on the roadside,” he says.
It wasn’t just because of militant attacks that these oil tankers were a threat. Last year, three passenger vehicles were crushed when nearby containers flipped over on top of them in Khyber. Often, transit containers are mistaken for Nato containers by Taliban and a number of drivers and conductors have been killed when regular transit vehicles are targeted.
Things have been radically different for the past many weeks. Commuters have been able to use this route without fearing for their lives since Nato supply routes were blocked by the Pakistani authorities following the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by allied forces on November 26.
At the moment, general transporters and passengers crossing the highway feel secure. Traffic jams on the highway have eased and commerce is steadily picking up in Karkhano Market. “Women are not reluctant to come and shop now that Nato supply routes have been blocked,” says Muhammad Rafiq, an electronics dealer in the market.
For now, Mustaqeem and Hazrat Ali feel safe while travelling this once-deadly route. But at the same time they are skeptical that the government will stick to its decision for long. Lakhkar Khan and other shopkeepers in Karkhano market say that until the Nato supply route is stopped on a permanent basis, the fear will continue to affect them adversely. “We’re living in peace until Nato routes are restored.”
The blocking of Nato supplies may be good news for villagers who want safety above everything else, but for the contractors who used to transport Nato goods, it is a different story altogether. Business has ground to a halt, and hundreds of drivers and conductors are out of work.
Transporters carrying goods to Nato forces in Afghanistan have been facing a threat to their lives but this threat to their livelihood is far worse, in their estimation. Despite losing many people in this risky business and being hit hard financially every time political upheavals lead to supplies being suspended, they want the resumption of this lucrative business.
“I have been suffering monthly losses of Rs3.6 million and my driver and conductor face monthly losses of Rs20,000 and Rs10,000 respectively since November 26, 2011,” says Nabi Gul a resident of Khyber Agency whose 18 oil tankers and containers are currently parked at different locations at Karachi. He estimates that around 10,000 vehicles supplying material to US-led forces in Afghanistan have been stranded in both the countries without reaching their destination in Karachi and more than 40,000 workers and owners have become unemployed. Despite the risks inherent in this business, he is not ready to quit. “I have lost three of my cousins in militant attacks on my vehicles in Khyber Pass since 2002, but it pays so well that we just stick to it.”
For a single trip from Karachi to Afghanistan he earns Rs200,000 as opposed to the Rs100,000 that a regular vehicle transporting supplies the same distance earns. “This hefty earning compels us to gamble with our lives,” he says.
For these transporters the future is uncertain — should they quit their job or stick to it? For Nabi Gul the first option is not viable as he would have to sell his vehicles at a price 30 per cent lower than that at which he purchased them, inflicting losses of millions of rupees. The second option is no better, keeping in view the uneasy relationship between Pakistan and the US, a permanent blocking of Nato supplies may well destroy their business.
“Right now vehicles owners are spending from their savings while the drivers and conductors are borrowing to make ends meet,” he says.
As for national interest and security Nabi Gul claims that “We are ready to say goodbye to our jobs in protest against the Nato raid on our border post — if, that is, the government decides to permanently close Nato supply routes through Pakistan.”
That ‘if’ is what haunts the denizens of this area, caught between fear for their lives and fear for their livelihoods.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 22nd, 2012.