smuggler’s paradise in afghanistan
Zaranj, Afghanistan – Smugglers skidded down a narrow dirt road, bouncing into potholes and over rocks that had sprung out of scrubland. His headlights were off and as the car picked up speed, he tightened his grip on the steering wheel and was trying to control it.
It was just after 1 a.m. in this corner of southwest Afghanistan and a full moon drenched the desert dunes with a dim, white glow. A few hours earlier, the smuggler made a deal with an Iranian security guard to send 40 Afghans across the nearby border that night.
Now a few miles down the road, the migrants hid in a ravine waiting for his signal to go off.
“I’m coming, I’m near the border, wait a minute!” He screamed into his phone and slammed it on the accelerator, kicking up a pile of dust and disappearing into the darkness.
It was a normal night job for the smuggler, H., who, due to the illegal nature of his business, only asked to go by his first letter. A broad-shouldered with a booming voice, H. He is one of a handful of gangsters who effectively run the province of Nimruz, which straddles the border with Iran and Pakistan and is the country’s epicenter for all things war.
For decades, the smuggling trade – of people, drugs and money – has dominated the economy here, pumping cash into an otherwise desolate region of Afghanistan where endless desert blends into a washed-out sky. Now, with hundreds of thousands of Afghans trying to flee the country, fearing persecution from the Taliban or starvation from the country’s economic collapse, trade has boomed thanks to smugglers like H, who hold the key to the gate.
But as migrants flood the province, the obstacles faced by smugglers have increased manifold: Iran has beefed up its border security since the former government fell, while the Taliban blocked the migrant route H. Tried to break into Iran, which is masterfully used by one of the two migrants secretly in Iran.
Journalists from The New York Times spent 24 hours with H. to see how the long-running illegal trade still persists in this corner of Afghanistan.
“Did the refugees come? How much are they?” H. called to an auto-rickshaw driver who had passed by him earlier that night. He nodded at the driver’s reaction—the three migrants—and proceeded to collect the two young boys, whom he had agreed to send with his cousin across the border before dawn.
It was a more frantic night than usual, he explained, due to a last-minute deal with an Iranian border guard who promised $35 for every Afghan who crossed the border. It triggered a scramble to collect 40 migrants from smuggler-owned hotels in the nearby town of Zaranj and bring them to one of HK’s desert safe houses, which are dotted with dirt floors and rusty mud-brick buildings. A little more. Tin roofs. Now they were converging at a rendezvous near the border, waiting for the code word – “grapes” – to pass to Iranian security forces on the other side.
Reporting from Afghanistan
Every phase of the operation is at once nerve-racking and familiar, frenzied and meticulously planned, H. explained. Every few minutes, he would call one of his three phones and instruct as many associates as needed to withdraw the deal of the night.
After the two boys jumped into his car, H. ran back to thoroughly clear the smugglers carrying his group of migrants and then met his cousin on the side of a nearby winding path, as he pulled up , headlights brightened.
“I brought some special refugees,” H. Shout, referring to young boys whose parents, both drug addicts, had recently overdosed. H.’s cousin, a gentle 26-year-old with a headphone constantly hanging from his ear, got out of his car and smiled into H.’s headlights.
A former soldier in the Afghan National Army, Cousin smuggled drugs into Iran – much more than his meager government salary. Once, he bragged, he snatched 420 kilograms – about 1,000 pounds – of opium into Iran without being caught. When the former government fell, he went into smuggling people full time.
Turning to the young boys in the car, H. told them that the man was their uncle and that he would take them across the border to be reunited with other relatives living in Iran. Mustafa, a little boy of 5 years, wiped the foggy window of the car with his sleeve so that the man could be seen well. His elder brother, 9-year-old Mohsin, was less skeptical.
“I want to be a smuggler when I grow up,” he said before exiting the car.
We agreed to meet H for lunch the next day and woke up to the sound of a bustling city. H. told us of this change of guard each morning, when smugglers slip into the lunar flats and return home and the center of life shifts to Zaranj, where buses unload thousands of Afghans every day.
Along the main drag, newcomers buy kebabs from street vendors and sit around plastic tables, eager to learn more about the grueling journey ahead. Others see shops selling scarves, hats and winter coats—all necessary, shoppers say, to survive the cold desert nights along the migrant trail.
Residents say that even in broad daylight, an aura of paranoia and disbelief pervades Zaranj – the city of liars and thieves. Almost everyone who lives here is involved in some way or the other in the smuggling trade, from bigwigs like drug runners and arms dealers to informants to men like H paid a few dollars a day. This is a place where people constantly check their rearview mirrors for tails and speak. In a calm voice, lest the person next to them is listening.
As we waited for H. to wake up, we drove onto the dusty road leading to Pakistan, with a pickup full of migrants headed for the border, their faces in scarves and goggles to protect them from clouds of dust. were wrapped. Within an hour, H. called us to drive there and reprimanded. A driver? Kids playing with the stream? Old man collecting kindle? – Must have informed him that we were there.
Twenty minutes later, he met us on the street and told us to follow him to his house on the outskirts of the city. We arrived at a grand three-story house and were led down a winding staircase into the basement: a spacious room decorated with red carpets, gold-trimmed pillars and a large television for an Iranian news channel.
“Four of my relatives who were kidnapped around the area where you were today,” he warned us as we sat down to eat. Then he lowered his voice: “When we found their bodies, we could recognize them only by their rings.”
H. felt safest in the part of the desert where we had driven the night before on land owned by his father. He spent most of his childhood there, taking small boats along the Helmand River. At the age of 14, he began smuggling small goods – petrol, cash, cigarettes – and crossing the border with Afghans into Iran.
Back then, it was easy, H explained. Smugglers could pay a small bribe at the border post and take the migrants’ van to Tehran. But nearly a decade ago, Iran erected a 15-foot-high wall and then strengthened its security forces along the border fearing an influx of Afghans after the Taliban came to power.
The Taliban have also tried to block the route, raiding safe houses and patrolling the desert. Even after this the smugglers are not deterring.
“The Taliban cannot close our business. If they tighten security, we’ll charge more and get more money,” H said during lunch. “We’re always one step ahead.”
Nevertheless, H. acknowledged, more migrants than his usual have been deported from Iran back to Afghanistan. Even the two boys he tried to send the night before were ambushed by Iranian soldiers when they climbed the border wall.
By 3 pm the boys were back in Zaranj and H.’s cousin took them home for dinner. Along the way, he bought them new winter gloves – an apology for going back to Afghan soil without them the previous night.
Sitting among the smugglers, elder brother Mohsin told Crossing, how he was horrified when he heard gunshots and saw an Iranian soldier beating a migrant. The boys had spent the night in a detention facility on a cold, concrete floor. Mustafa fell asleep wrapped in Mohsin’s arms without a blanket.
“I thought crossing the border would be easy, but it was very difficult,” Mohsin said factually. The smugglers laughed.
H. said he planned to send the boys across the border again that night and asked them to rest. Then, as dusk began to fall in the desert, H. began his normal course: he passed through the border areas, passing Taliban posts. He stopped near one of his safe houses, where 135 men were kneeling on an earthen floor. Torn plastic from medicine pills was scattered around them and the smell of urine hung in the air.
Stepping outside, he nodded, smoking a cigarette to an old man who stood guard. Then H. turned to us. “That’s enough, I think,” he said, suggesting that it was time for us to leave.
Four days later, H. sent a picture of the boys standing in front of an orange tractor covered in dust. He made it in Iran that day.
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