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6 months of protest, demands for restoration of normal lives: Here’s why thousands of Pakhtuns in Pakistan are protesting at border along Afghanistan

The national apex committee of Pakistan ruled last year that only people with legitimate passports and visas would be permitted to access the Chaman border crossing. Previously, Pakistanis and Afghans would cross the border by showing their identity cards

On the Wesh-Chaman border which lies between the Islamic countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan, thousands of Pakhtun protesters have been encamped and are protesting against the government for its new policy which disallows movement across the border without a valid visa and passport. As per a report by Dawn, the decision has affected the lives of around 1.2 million people of Chaman who are now not allowed to travel through the border freely as they used to do earlier.

The national apex committee of Pakistan, composed of civil and military leaders, ruled last year that only people with legitimate passports and visas would be permitted to access the Chaman border crossing. Previously, Pakistanis and Afghans would cross the border by showing their respective identity cards. However, the shift from a relatively open to a regulated crossing with severe paperwork requirements has unintentionally impacted the lives of the people. 

So, for about 180 days, hundreds of Pakhtuns have been tented at the Friendship Gate, the authorized border crossing between Chaman and the Afghan district Spin-Boldak, in protest of the one-document policy. Demonstrators have watched changing seasons, endured tear gas, and also sustained bullet wounds. They are determined not to abandon their positions until their views are heard.

The protest termed ‘Chaman Parlat’ is being led by Chaman resident Akhwond who says that the Pakhtuns are not demanding freedom, but they just want their normal lives back in which they could travel freely across the border.

Akhwond refers to both Chaman on this side of the border and Wesh in Afghanistan. Notably, even before the continually monitored checkpoints and wire walls were established, this land was simply a home for the Pakhtuns. People by the border lived together like a family, united not only by nationality, tribe, or culture but also by strong emotions.

Sir Mortimer Durand, British Foreign Secretary, established the boundary between Afghanistan and India in 1893, which separated the Pakhtun province. The Durand Line, which spans 2,430 km, runs across Pakhtun tribal territories and divides them into two distinct countries. While Pakistan inherited the Durand Line after independence, there has been no formal agreement or recognition of it.

According to Kashif Panezai, the vice chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the area that stays divided along the border is not just a piece of land, it is their home. “The Durand Line splits numerous villages in half and divides others from their agricultural territories; it cuts tribes and other groups in half,” he said.

“Pakhtuns have been traversing on either side of the border for years. The people on our side have half their families living in Spin-Boldak, their sisters have been married on the other side of the border, they have their businesses set up there … they even bury their dead in one graveyard,” he added describing normal life of a Pakhtun there.

But for over six months now, the Pakhtuns of Chaman have been cut off from friends, families, and livelihoods, he says.

Over the last six months, the demonstrators have engaged in multiple rounds of negotiations with the administration. However, to no avail. The meetings would always finish with the authorities stating that the situation was beyond their control because it was the military leadership who decided on visa and passport requirements.

Akhwond is even prepared to travel to Islamabad and speak with the army head. Despite many attempts, he has failed to schedule a meeting.

Meanwhile, the authorities are blaming the protesters’ ‘inflexibility’ for unsuccessful negotiations. “If you look at it through the legal lens, the government’s decision is in line with internationally outlined processes. Every state has a right to form its own border rules. The problem of Afghan nationals entering Pakistan without authentic documentation is worrisome and needs to be addressed,” Chaman Deputy Commissioner Captain Raja Athar Abbas was quoted as saying by the Dawn.

At the same time, Captain Abbas acknowledges that the citizens of Chaman experience genuine challenges. He stated that the state had been doing everything it could to accommodate the demonstrators and had been lenient on humanitarian issues such as fatalities and health concerns.

The protests still continue with thousands in tents demanding the restoration of their normal lives.

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