Frontline: Chaman, PakistanI-Afghan frontier - Legacy of the Raj: fine railways and lousy borders

Jason Burke
Thursday 21 January 1999 00:02 GMT

THIS IS a border with no boundaries, boasting a frontier town with no frontier. Although the dusty fences at Chaman supposedly mark a division, with the low, wide desert plain around them officially split between Pakistan and Afghanistan, no one pretends that the border is where either country starts or ends.

From the Pakistani side, Chaman is approached from the city of Quetta - once, with its cool mountain climate and jasmine-scented air, one of the most prized postings of British India. The border is 80 miles away, but Afghanistan starts almost the moment one leaves the town. The ordered lines of the army barracks dissolve into sheep markets and bazaars, potholes start to appear in the previously smooth road and burqas - the hooded cloak that women traditionally wear while outdoors in Afghanistan - begin to multiply by the roadside.

The road winds through a contorted, sun-bleached landscape pitted and hummocked with dunes, bluffs and gullies. It runs straight over craggy plains where small villages keep their mud-walled houses grouped together for defence.

Then the road climbs the 8,000ft Khojak pass. Half-way up are the barracks of the 55th Pishin Scouts' Light Infantry Regiment, its officers' mess and stores. At the very crest of the pass, a surreal signpost points the way to "solitude hut".

Chaman itself sits in the middle of a plain in a perpetual shroud of sandstorms. The town may be just inside Pakistan but for hundreds of miles in every direction the people share a common ethnic stock, language, religion and culture.

They even share a landscape - there is little change in the dusty, rock- strewn desert until you reach the Arabian Sea to the south, the irrigated fields of the Indus hundreds of miles to the east or the mountains to the north.

The only border Chaman marks is the boundary between two tribes - the Pathans and the Balochis. But the axis of that division lies at right angles to the frontier recognised on the map.

Even the home secretary in Quetta - the second-most senior civil servant in the province - admits the frontier, effectively created as the western boundary of British India, is a farce: "It is an imaginary border. You Britishers built us good railways but gave us some lousy boundaries."

One such railway still runs from Quetta to Chaman. Almost all the passengers for the five-hour ride are taking the cheapest, if slowest, form of transport to or from Afghan-istan. The locals completely ignore the border and are allowed to cross it with few checks. To most it is an irritation, little more.

To others, however, the border provides a livelihood. Astride his motorbike in the biggest of the town's bazaars Mohammed Ayub Achakzai - known as one of Chaman's biggest smugglers - laughs when asked how he makes his living. "I am just a trader and business is good. Big money, big money." He lays a fat index finger beside an acne-pitted nostril and winks.

With heavy tariffs imposed on goods entering from Afghanistan, smugglers can make huge profits bringing in everything from air-conditioning units to wood. The most profitable cargo smuggled through Chaman, however, is heroin.

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