On the Edge of Afghanistan…

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A decimated economy, a resurgent Taliban, and growing tensions with Iran are driving disenchanted Afghans to seek opportunities abroad. And for many it’s their only option.

Of all of Afghanistan’s lawless provinces, Nimruz is perhaps the rawest and most untamed. The desert in southwestern Afghanistan, cornering up against Iran and Pakistan, looks like something out of Mad Max: a post-apocalyptic wasteland where only camel herders and smugglers seem to thrive. Sandstorms kick up without warning, swallowing the horizon in a thick beige mist. Out of the haze, a group of motorcyclists suddenly rides past, their hair stiff with grit and their eyes hidden by goggles. This is wild country.

Nimruz is a microcosm of what has gone wrong in the Afghan war. The province’s lawlessness is a testament to the Western-backed government’s failure to assert authority and curtail rogue strongmen. As Afghanistan’s drug-smuggling hub, it provides a financial artery for the Taliban, who appear stronger than ever. And because of its largely unprotected borders, and complicity from the few forces that actually guard them, it has long been a gateway for the growing number of Afghans who, facing increasing violence and a stagnant economy, have simply lost hope that their motherland can be their home.

Despite the dangers that await — kidnappers, insurgents, corrupt border guards, and some 16,000 square miles of merciless terrain — what lies beyond the wilderness calls to young Afghan men like sirens in the desert.

Porters wait on carts used to haul the luggage of those either voluntarily returning or being deported from Iran, and who can afford the service, 100 yards from the Afghan-Iranian border.

The most ambitious travelers aim for Europe, where in 2015 Afghans made up the second-largest group of asylum-seekers, trailing only Syrians. The subsequent tightening of controls on several European borders has since prevented many Afghans from reaching the continent’s shores. But they still choose to leave Afghanistan, settling instead to work as day laborers in Iran. According to those who have made the journey, it costs about $500 per traveler, which can be earned back in a month as a construction worker, bricklayer, or fruit picker in Iran. That is more than twice the salary of an Afghan soldier on the front line. There are risks that come with this trade-off. Once migrants make it to Iran, they often face mistreatment from employers. And many young Afghans pick up drug habits in Iran, which has the world’s largest demand for opiates.

Still every day, hundreds of men from all over Afghanistan set out in pickup trucks at breakneck speed. The first six-hour leg by car takes migrants through the desert to the border of Pakistani Baluchistan. The next 24 hours on foot cut through Taliban-held areas of Pakistan into southern Iran, where a third team of smugglers ferries travelers onward in overcrowded cars. The arid heat is punishing, and any encounter is risky — whether with the Taliban, gangs of robbers, or trigger-happy Pakistani and Iranian border guards. Both Afghan border police and national police, as well as the Taliban, squeeze drivers for payment on the way.

“Of course it’s very dangerous. They take us in three cars, going very fast, and accidents happen all the time,” says Shafiq Amiri, a young man from Kabul. “I know I can get hurt, but what can we do?” He had to leave Iran after a previous trip because he was unable to find work but is undeterred. “I have to go to Iran so I can send money home to my family.”

Nimruz’s provincial capital, Zaranj, is like no other Afghan town. As Afghanistan’s smuggling capital, it houses about 160,000 permanent residents, but its contours are shaped by streams of passers-through and torrents of money flowing from drug barons, arms dealers, and human smugglers.

It’s July 2016 when photojournalist Andrew Quilty and I arrive in Zaranj to explore this place that can go many months, if not longer, without seeing a foreign reporter.

Suspicion pervades every corner of town. People speak to us in hushed voices and warn us more than once of kidnappings. While we are in town, stories circulate about a wealthy businessman whose kidnappers dug a hole and gave him a tube to breathe through before burying him. Police tell us that the kidnappers spent a week extorting the man’s family. By the time they received the ransom, he was dead. The family took revenge and paid the Taliban to kill the two kidnappers.

Syed Abdul Hai Sadat, a local employee of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), says he has deliberately made only one friend in the 10 years he has worked here. “The more friends you have, the more problems you have. You can’t trust anyone here,” he says.

In the scorching heat of the summer, daytime in Zaranj is sleepy, bordering on comatose. But the city comes to life in the evening, when buses from Kabul and Herat arrive, throwing open their doors to hundreds of bleary-eyed men who stream into decrepit, neon-lit hotels carrying belongings in plastic bags or knockoff U.S. military backpacks.

On our first evening in town, we visit a cluster of hotels where migrants sit and wait, often a week, for a smuggler to call. The men are huddled around a few floor fans that push around the stale air without actually cooling it. Looking like so many undernourished and drug-abusing laborers returning from Iran, a skeletal Gulabuddin Ayoubi tells us that he is going to Iran the following day, his fourth time.

Afghans walk through a sandstorm, away from the border crossing with Iran, after being deported on July 13, 2016. Figures on the number of Afghans traveling illegally to Iran, where work is easier to find and they are better paid, are nonexistent, but approximately 1,000 Afghans are currently being deported from Iran, daily.

“I would love to stay here, in my home in Badakhshan,” he says. “But I cannot find work, and I need to make money for my family. In Iran, we can do all kinds of work. When I was 16, I tried to join the police, but they wouldn’t let me because I was too young. Now I am too afraid. A lot of people are dying.”

With the Taliban controlling or fighting for control of 40 percent of the country, and ordinary Afghans disillusioned with their political leaders, the Afghan government is stretched beyond capacity — militarily and politically — in most parts of the country. Remote Nimruz is a low priority, so the state has little authority in Zaranj and virtually none outside it.

For centuries, Nimruz has been one of Afghanistan’s unruliest areas, partly because governments paid it little heed. “These marginal areas were always troublesome, but not particularly important,” says Thomas Barfield, an anthropology professor at Boston University and author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History.

After 2001, however, the importance of Nimruz grew. A vast injection of foreign aid and military funds strengthened, to some extent, state institutions, but much of the money went unaccounted for. The United States spent more in civilian aid to Afghanistan than was spent on rebuilding all of Europe after World War II, and Afghanistan still ranks among the poorest, least developed countries in the world. Largely due to rife corruption, Western money has inflated the power of local strongmen, criminals, and insurgents who undermine the state. In Nimruz, these nongovernmental forces are the order of the day.

“It is like giving steroids to a bodybuilder: He was already going to the gym, but he didn’t get that way just by lifting weights,” Barfield says.

Further upsetting the already unstable region is a centuries-old conflict with neighboring Iran at its historical source: water. It was an attempt to divert water that, according to historians, prompted the invading Timurids in the 14th century to blow up the dams in the area. And despite a 1973 water treaty, the two countries regularly accuse each other of appropriating more than its fair share.

Compounding tensions in recent years is Iran’s covert support for the Taliban. As the United States tries to withdraw from its longest war, Iran is reasserting its influence in western Afghanistan, in part by propping up the insurgency. Along the border, Iran has created a buffer zone by arming local militant groups as a bulwark against the strongly anti-Iranian Islamic State, which has cropped up in pockets around Afghanistan since it first declared a local chapter in 2014. Afghan officials even believe that Iran has been instrumental in some of the largest Taliban offensives against the government in western Afghanistan.

The flow of Afghan migrants, particularly from Nimruz, and Iran’s treatment of them once they arrive have only amplified these frustrations. A few years ago, Iran took measures to stop Afghans from entering the country illegally; a 15-foot-high wall now runs along the border. However, according to authorities in Nimruz, some influential Afghan landowners charge migrants for passage, bribing Iranian police to open the gates.

The legal way into Iran is via the Pol-e Abrisham, the Iranian-built bridge that connects the two countries over the Helmand River and sits exposed to the wind on the outskirts of Zaranj.

Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran has welcomed millions of Afghan refugees, most of whom received working papers and were allowed schooling. Today, however, about two-thirds of the 3 million Afghans in Iran are there illegally, according to the United Nations, exposing them to workplace abuse, police harassment and arbitrary arrests, limited health services, and, in the case of minors, child labor.

“Afghan workers face various forms of abuse ranging from theft to verbal and physical abuse, irregular payment of salary, and long working hours, particularly for daily laborers,” says Nassim Majidi, the co-founder of Samuel Hall, a research group that has done extensive work on Afghan migration.

Nimruz is one of the driest provinces in Afghanistan. The provincial capital, Zaranj, relies largely on water delivery by men who make their incomes collecting it in water tanks attached to tractors from bores scattered around the city. Beside a water canal that dried up only days prior, boys from a nearby settlement for displaced families from Helmand province cool off beneath a leak in a thick hose.

Regardless of the widespread abuse of Afghans there (which has been thoroughly documented by Human Rights Watch), Iran remains the primary destination. According to IOM statistics, in the first six months of 2017, a total of 80,530 Afghans fled abroad, more than half of them to Iran and 23 percent to Europe.

While there is no one simple explanation for why Afghans continue to migrate in such high numbers, Liza Schuster, a migration expert with City University of London, says, “Structural drivers such as insecurity, conflict, unemployment, lack of opportunity, lack of faith in the government and the future, and corruption make the whole population vulnerable to migration.” But she adds, “A trigger is needed to make people actually leave.” That precipitous event may include a terrorist attack, the mother you cared for dying, or simply being passed over for a job.

One afternoon, after a few days in town, we meet 16-year-old Gul Mohammad, who has just returned. On his journey to Iran, after crossing the Afghan-Pakistani border in a pickup and hiking through Taliban territory, he was bundled into the back seat of a car, which soon came under fire from Iranian security forces. Mohammad was hit in the back with a bullet. Iranian police ferried him to a hospital, but weeks later, when he was able to walk again, he was shoved onto a bus and driven to the bridge. When we meet him, soon after his crossing, he’s in blue hospital clothes, clutching a colostomy bag in one hand and an envelope with X-rays in the other.

“As soon as I feel better, I’m going back to Iran,” he says, looking shellshocked. Mohammad is from Maimana, which is a 560-mile drive from Zaranj. As the oldest son, he has likely been entrusted with the family savings. If he doesn’t send money back, they will have nothing.

Dozens of drug addicts smoke opium and crystal meth, just after sunrise, in an abandoned store in central Zaranj. When asked whether he’d become addicted in Iran, a man squatting by the wall gestures, making a wide arc with his hand to the other addicts nearby. “Everyone here has come back from Iran,” he says.

At night, in Zaranj, addicts congregate in corners of the city, smoking opium, heroin, and crystal meth, all of which can be purchased for less than a dollar a hit. Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world’s opiates, much of which is smuggled through Nimruz.

On the outskirts of town, the Chigini drug rehabilitation clinic run by the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics houses about 150 addicts at a time. The rehabilitation program is simple: cold turkey, simple food, light exercise, and some medication for the pain.

But the first step is a head shave. As patients sit in a hall on the concrete floor, dozens of bald heads facing the same direction, they look like a cult of reborn zealots. But here redemption is rare. Everyone I speak to has relapsed after a previous 45-day treatment. Staying clean without a job, and, in many cases, having lost one’s family to the ravages of addiction, is severely difficult. And nearly everyone says he picked up his habit in Iran.

“Most people go to Iran to find work,” says Humayun Amini, the clinic’s director. “They are encouraged to do drugs so they can work longer without getting hungry. They are illiterate. So they are trapped in this drug addiction, just for doing more work.”

After lunch, a couple of men lead the group in singing Persian songs, accompanied by a beat from the bottom of a plastic water jug. Amir, 27, immediately bursts into tears.

“The song reminded me of my mother,” he says. Amir has been using for nine years, since he first went to Iran. “She was in a coma for 35 days. Finally, she died. Ten days later, I came here because I felt so guilty.”

The Chigini clinic closed down in May due to lack of funding, according to Amini. A private businessman, Haji Nazir, established another clinic with a 500-bed capacity this year.

Mohammad Samiullah, the governor of southwestern Nimruz province, sits inside a building he calls “the palace,” in his compound in the provincial capital, Zaranj, on Aug. 6.

After the sun sets on our fourth day in town, the son of the governor, Mohammad Samiullah, invites us for freshly barbecued lamb kebab. A handsome 20-something with stubble and striking green eyes, Haris Stanikzai oozes self-confidence. He also smells like an entire duty-free perfume shop. As an only son, he is in Nimruz to advise his father and — perhaps more importantly in a town as desolate as Zaranj — keep him company.

Due to risk of kidnapping, his father forbids him to leave the compound alone. So Stanikzai’s only friends in Nimruz are his bodyguards. To him, this place is not a gateway to freedom. It is a prison.

Stanikzai’s entire being is twitchy with boredom; he struggles to keep himself busy. As a whole lamb sizzles on the barbecue, he gives us a tour of his “zoo” — a large garden in the governor’s compound.

“Look at those two beautiful goats!” he exclaims, pointing to a small enclosure.

I pause. “I think those are springboks,” I tell him.

The price tag for flying these animals, whatever they are, from Kabul was $6,000 a head, Stanikzai says. The zoo also boasts various birds, including peacocks and parrots, but most of the animals died in the heat, including an antelope family.

Stanikzai’s life is worlds apart from the poor migrants flocking to Nimruz, and he is disparaging of their eagerness to leave.

“No one thinks about their country. Everyone thinks about their own benefit,” he says. “They are happy to go to Iran to do the labor work, to clean the toilets, to be treated in a very bad way. But they won’t stay in their own country to serve in the police and the army.”

But Stanikzai also shares their lack of hope and is himself a prospective migrant. He feels out of place in Afghanistan and wants to join his fiancée in Germany. So he has reached the conclusion that although he adores his parents, he must also leave. The pond is just too small.

After dinner, lounging on pillows with the flowery perfume emanating from his crisp shalwar kameez, Stanikzai puffs on a hookah and breaks out in a love ballad he says he sings to his fiancée over the phone — “My Heart Will Go On,” Céline Dion’s song from Titanic. His rendering is badly out of tune but sincere.

A bodyguard working as part of a security detail for Haris Stanikzai and his entourage visits the site of the Kamal Khan dam project on July 14, 2016.

A few days earlier, Stanikzai mobilized his bodyguards to take us deep into the desert — with his father’s permission. The governor adheres proudly to pashtunwali, a traditional Pashtun code of hospitality, so if the foreigners want to see the desert, even if he doesn’t understand why, his son will escort them.

Stanikzai was giddy with excitement. He recalled the last time the governor (as he calls his father) left town. Stanikzai — for all purposes the acting governor — had raced into the desert with a machine gun and, screaming to the heavens, fired blindly into the sun.

“I was feeling totally free,” he reminisced with a grin.

Stanikzai, his dozen-strong entourage of bodyguards, Quilty, and I piled into pickups and followed the Helmand River south, toward Chahar Burjak, two and a half hours from Zaranj. The highway was dotted with pickups heaving with hopeful migrants, weighing the vehicles down so the bumpers almost brushed the asphalt. Passengers had stocked up on the bare travel necessities: goggles and water.

As we left the highway, all roads and signposts vanished. A sandstorm broke out. We couldn’t see anything beyond 15 feet ahead of us; sand slid down the windows like dregs in a wine glass. The driver reassured us; he grew up around here, he said, and could find his way blindfolded. That was, in essence, what he was doing. It was clear then why migrants are so dependent on smugglers — and why smugglers are so difficult to catch.

When we reached Chahar Burjak, stopping at a base that houses at least 120 police, the wind had calmed down, giving us a view of the wide expanses. Behind us ran the Helmand River, and in the distance a few pickups on patrol sped across the sand, beating up tails of dust, carrying policemen with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers poking out of the cars like quills on a hedgehog.

Before we set out with Stanikzai and his crew, we had met with Rahmatullah Naser, a chatty lieutenant colonel in the national border police, tasked with the thankless job of plugging the holes that allow people, guns, and drugs to be smuggled through Nimruz.

“We have tried to crack down on them in the past, but smugglers just choose different, more dangerous routes. In the past year, many died and got lost,” said Naser, a few days’ stubble showing on his chin.

“It’s like the door is open, and I’m trying to close the window,” he added, his voice coarse, his breath reeking of whiskey.

A water canal in Zaranj fed by a dried-up Helmand River – usually the case during summer – is used by shepherds for their goats and by children for play.

The desert takes, and the desert gives. For instance, the Toyota Hiluxes packed with heavily armed Taliban fighters, who occasionally appear out of nowhere and start firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at outposts. Here, nobody doubts who sent them: Iran.

In Zaranj, water is so scarce that local entrepreneurs pump it out of lakes and distribute it to private homes for $5 a truck tank. The government is in the early stages of building a large-scale water dam, called Kamal Khan, to boost agriculture and livelihoods by providing electricity and irrigating 175,000 hectares of land. The project has roused ire in Iran. The Hamoun wetlands on the Iranian side of the border suffered greatly under the Taliban regime, which choked off the sluices at the Kajaki Dam farther upstream, and Iran now fears that diversion of the water will dry out the wetlands completely. The Kamal Khan project has moved at a glacial pace but is a pillar of Samiullah’s governorship. In Nimruz, authorities say Iran is trying to sabotage the dam project by propping up the local Taliban.

“The Taliban are close to the border, so they get better weapons and can cross the border to recuperate,” says Humayoon, the burly, mustachioed base commander.

We seek shade inside the base, where a group of police commanders are washing down dry fruits with Monster Energy drinks. The green tea we drink has a trace of sand. Outside, a storm seems to be gathering again. The gusts sweeping western Afghanistan — aptly named the “120 Days’ Wind” — define life here more than any human authority.

“We are not scared of war. We are scared of this wind,” says Fazl Ahmad Zuri, one of the commanders gathered at the base.

From here, the police watch as smugglers ferry one truckload of migrants after another through the desert. They say they are incapable of stopping them.

“They are traveling like animals. Many die in the desert. Girls are raped,” Zuri says. “More people were killed migrating than in the security forces.”

Afghan men hoping to reach Iran via smuggler-provided transport wait inside a small general store that doubles as a holding room for migrants in the village of Kolokhak, outside Zaranj, on Aug. 4.

On our last day in Zaranj, we get a call from Khoda Rahim, a human smuggler I have tried to meet for five days. Success eventually comes with help from an unexpected side: a source in the Afghan intelligence services who is friends with Rahim. In a crumbling mud house in a back alley, Rahim, sweating, with a heavy gut, explains how the smuggling industry works. The intelligence agent listens from his spot in the corner.

Rahim came to Nimruz about five years ago from Faryab in the north, where he still goes often. That connection is the spine of his business, as he primarily “guides” migrants from his home province, whom he calls his relatives.

“People from all 34 provinces have hotels here, and people go to their relatives,” he says. Rahim’s job is to get people to the border by connecting them to drivers. From there, a Pakistani “guide” takes over.

A gentle call to prayer wafts over the mud roofs, bathed in the golden late-afternoon sun. Rahim seems unremorseful about sending young men into uncertainty and danger. His profits have put two of his four children in school. He claims he doesn’t give his clients any illusions about life in Europe.

“Two hundred Toyotas leave Chahar Burjak for the border every single day,” he says. “You don’t think the government knows this? But of course we have to be careful. If the intelligence agents catch us, they’ll arrest us.”

I eye the intelligence agent in the corner. He doesn’t flinch.

“People only leave because they are hungry. If we had money, we would not leave home. All families have at least one relative working in Turkey or Iran or Europe who sends money back,” Rahim says. “As long as there is no work for Afghans, they will keep going.”

Sune Engel Rasmussen is the Guardian’s correspondent in Afghanistan. (@SuneEngel)