In Pakistan, Everybody Must Get Stoned

Journalists aren't exempt when police and refugees are trading projectiles, TIME's Tim McGirk learned at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. And they're a useful bargaining chip, too.

Thursday, Oct. 25, 2001

It can take several hours to be admitted to the domain of Pakistan's Home Secretary for Baluchistan, the all-powerful and mercurial bureaucrat who decides which journalists are permitted to travel to the Afghan border. Along with two French photographers, I was finally allowed into his office. We weren't the only ones: aid workers, Japanese and Lebanese journalists, a senior civil servant from Islamabad, and a few tribal elders were all waiting, too. All of us were sitting in straight-backed chairs along the wall like humble supplicants in an Ottoman court, while the Home Secretary, Azmat Hanif Orakzai, fielded phone calls from the governor and the garrison commander. He put the phone down and eyed us three newcomers, while twisting the end of his mustache. Suddenly, TIME photographer Alexandra Boulat, who happens to be a willowy French woman, stood up and said: "Sir, I'm fed up of bouncing along these roads. We want to go the border in a limousine. A Mercedes-Benz. Can you arrange it? And of course, you are most welcome to come with us."

The Home Secretary stopped twisting his mustache and actually smiled.

Alexandra's weird outburst about the limo had disarmed him. Rather shyly, the Home Secretary said he regretted that he couldn't accompany us, but he signed the permit, anyway. This allowed us the pleasure of driving 80 miles through tribal territory with a sleepy armed guard in the front seat whose Kalashnikov always seems to be pointing at our faces, no matter how we tried to re-arrange ourselves in the back seat.

At the border town of Chaman, I went to talk to a merchant who owned an import-export business. It was a dusty shop front with a very large carpet and no furniture other than a few bolsters. It didn't look like much, but appearances in this part of the world can be deceptive. Ostentation attracts envy - and trouble. It turns out this merchant, Haji Amanullah, and his brothers are very rich and very famous around these parts. They live in a 130-room palace outside Chaman and have offices in Tokyo, Dubai, Quetta and Karachi. He's going to Paris next week to buy lots of tires, and he mentions the name of his hotel on the Champs Elysee. "Rooms in that hotel are $1,500 a night," Jerome, the other photographer, whispers to me. The merchant goes there because he likes the pizza parlor around the corner.

I brushed aside the dust on the Afghan rug on which we sat. The weave was exquisite. (After six weeks in carpetland you start noticing these things.) Oh, yes - this merchant is also a friend of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. "Before it might have been possible for America to negotiate with Mullah Omar over Osama bin Laden - but not now," he says. "Mullah Omar watched his son dying in a Kandahar hospital after a U.S. bombing raid. These things are not so easily forgiven."

The border itself was mayhem. The Pakistanis had sealed off their side that day, and we pulled up just as a crowd of smugglers, Afghan refugees, horse cart drivers, and tractors loaded with children and chickens burst across the line. It was a medieval dust-storm of clattering hooves, curses, and women in long burqa veils were running, stumbling, across the border clutching their screaming kids. Then the smugglers started throwing rocks at the police. And the police started throwing them back. Then shots were fired. The horses reared, bucking their carts, but they were whipped on by their Drivers to cross the frontier like something out of Ben Hur's chariot race.

Then the crowd started throwing stones at us. Big stones. Who knows why? Because America had dropped bombs on them? Because we had an armed guard in a uniform as an escort? Because it was a novelty to throw stones at foreigners instead of always at each other? Maybe for all those reasons. Our armed guard and protector cowered behind a wall. He was to redeem himself later on, though.

We scrambled into the car. Stones hammered on the car, banging the roof, the doors, and finally one softball-sized rock crashed through Jerome's window, showering him and his cameras with splinters of glass. Other than that, we were all okay.

It was sunset as we left Chaman. As the road wound up into the mountains, we came across the horde of illegal refugees who'd scrambled across the border earlier. They were in a long caravan of tractors, taxis, pickups and wildly-painted buses with men clinging to their sides and roofs. The caravan was stopped at the first police checkpoint. We jumped out and moved through the halted vehicles, attracting a crowd as we walked. A fellow dragged me over to see a white bearded man crumpled into a pick-up truck. He'd been wounded in the air strike on Kandahar. A much larger crowd gathered. Some were curious, a few hostile. Suddenly our guard grabbed us away from the crowd of refugees. "Go back to the car - fast!" he ordered. Later he explained. "They wanted to take you hostages. They threatened to kill you unless the police let them through." And they might've, these refugees. They had nothing left to lose. No money. No country. Not much hope.

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Submitted By: A.F. Waddell
Oct 30, 2001 12:30

This joke is rated: PG