Pakistani migrants in Afghanistan caught in quake no-man’s land

When Gul Nayeb Khan tried to claim a parcel of aid for earthquake victims being handed out in eastern Afghanistan at the weekend, he was turned away because he is Pakistani — one of thousands of migrants caught in limbo between the two countries.

“I wish I had been among the dead,” he told AFP, holding back tears as he bemoaned his fate in the aftermath of last week’s 5.9-magnitude quake that killed at least 1,000 people near the border with Pakistan.

Just two months earlier, Khan said, he lost 28 members of his family when Pakistan army helicopters fired rockets into his village — ostensibly targeting militants seeking shelter in Afghanistan.

Khan is one of thousands of Pakistanis who fled their homeland for Afghanistan around a decade ago after Islamabad cracked down on militants in the north of the country.

Islamabad says its home-grown version of the Taliban — Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — are carrying out attacks from Afghan soil across the porous border.

Khan, 30, said around 50 people were killed in the raid on Afghan-Dubai village in mid-April — an operation never acknowledged by Pakistan but described by Afghanistan’s Taliban as an attack on innocent civilians.

Islamabad has repeatedly called on the Afghan Taliban — with whom tensions have risen since their takeover in August — to take “tough action” against the militants.

Those injured in Khan’s family were just beginning to rebuild their homes when the earthquake struck.

– Sticks and belts –

“My heart is suffering so much. We are facing all the misfortunes you can imagine,” he said.

In Afghan-Dubai — named at a time when the pine nut trade between the two places flourished in the coniferous mountain region — the distribution of aid is strictly supervised by armed Afghan Taliban.

It takes place on a small hill in the centre of the village, in a space the size of a basketball court.

The distribution area is cordoned off with rope, and anyone trying to cross without permission risks being beaten with sticks or belts by the Taliban.

Khan was denied aid because his name was not on a list compiled by the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is trying to encourage the Pakistanis to return home.

Hazrat Omar, 25, another exile from Pakistan, thought the village was being attacked again when the earthquake struck.

“It was midnight… we heard a loud noise… then the roof of our house collapsed,” he said.

“As this is a border area, we thought Pakistan was bombing our houses.”

– ‘Life is very hard’ –

Sharifullah Khan is another in the aid queue, luckily holding a ticket issued by the IOM that marks him as a legitimate recipient of aid.

He also fled Pakistan when the army launched operations against the TTP in Waziristan in the mid-2010s.

He settled on the other side of the border, which can be seen running along the mountain ridge, less than two kilometres (miles) away.

“Pakistan destroyed our homes (in Waziristan)…. then Pakistan bombed us on Afghan soil,” he said.

“And now, after the earthquake, the aftershocks, the children can’t sleep at night.”

“Life here is very hard. We are enduring all sorts of difficulties. Nobody cares about us,” adds Omar.

Early Monday morning, with the sun barely rising, people were already approaching the distribution centre.

The Taliban were there too, waiting for any interlopers with their sticks and belts.