In 2017, Islamabad constructed a fence along its more-than 2,600-kilometre border with Afghanistan in a bid to quell terrorism, leading to soaring school dropout rates in the area. Still, some continue to fight for their education.
For villagers living in and around the Durand Line, which was established by Sir Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat and civil servant, in 1896, business as usual came abruptly to a halt the day the border was sealed.
Abdul Raziq Shinwari has been running a school near the edge of the border on the Pakistani side for more than a decade. He says that since visas and passports were now mandatory, the number of students admitted has fallen to half their former capacity and Afghan students, in particular, by 75 percent.
“We used to have 600 Afghan students, which are down to 150 now,” he said.
“Our school was closed off to Afghan students for most of 2017 due to the unrest and the border closure. Many lost out on their 9th and 10th grade exams and became school dropouts.”
Though students have since been exempted from the travelers’ conditions, they have to carry around a white-coloured card.
Sheraz Khan is one such student. The 14-year-old says he crosses the border because the standard of education on the Afghanistan side remains lower given that subjects are taught in Pashto.
“Here, we study in English,” he says. “How can we advance in life using only our mother tongue?
“It was fun coming in groups to school. I now travel all by myself from my area.”
He says several schools in his area were blown up by Taliban and Daesh terrorists.
“I have seen explosives being placed inside schools with my own two eyes,” says Khan.
“That is why we have to cross the border to ensure we get a decent education.”
He says the security situation at their end isn’t safe and that his family doesn’t let him venture out after sunset. “We even prefer to offer evening prayers at home,” says Khan.
He points to the white ID that enables him to cross the border.
“This card will ultimately guarantee that I fulfil my dream of becoming a doctor.”
Kabul, which has never accepted the area to be an international border, insists the area remains disputed and that is precisely why fence construction has angered the Afghan government.
Zardasht Shams, Afghanistan’s deputy ambassador to Pakistan, said the Afghan government has repeatedly objected given that the fence would quite literally create a wedge between people of common cultural and ethnic descent.
“Our position is very clear. It’s a unilateral and counterproductive measure,” said Shams, who added that countering terrorism and infiltration requires more viable and practical efforts.
And yet, terrorism-related incidents have plummeted to their lowest levels on the Pakistani side since the fence was built. Bombings were widespread and frequent prior to that, especially along the border.
Islamabad is adamant that the construction of the fence will be completed by the middle of next year.
Islamabad says the fact that Afghan students can enter without a visa, something most countries would never accept, shows that education isn’t hindered by the fence.
Still, many feel the crunch.
“The new border management system may be good for the Pakistani government but it has caused a lot of difficulties for people on both sides of the border,” says Mira Khan.
The 19-year-old from the Gardi Ghous area of Nangarhar Province, says he would have to wake up at 5 a.m. to get to school in time.
Like most Afghans, he would run his father’s shop after school to earn his expenses.
“I was running a shop at the same time as studying,” he said. “My father died last year. People here are poor. Some even take on hard labor to put themselves through school.”
“The security situation has improved since the Afghan government launched a series of anti-terror operations,” says Khan, adding that the concept of women getting education doesn’t exist in his area.
Some say the fence divides families since tribes living on either side often have family connections.
Dadin Shinwari owns a restaurant in a bazaar along the border.
“Before, our cattle would graze on either side of the border but now, they can’t,” he says.
“The land on the other side is more fertile and we were getting lamb for cheaper prices,” says Shinwari. “Now that the border crossing is no longer free, we are paying around 3,000 rupees extra per sheep.”
Shaheen Mazhar, a military general, disagrees with Dadin’s views.
“This fence does not divide tribes and villages. It makes the border area secure for both. This isn’t against the people, but against the terrorists.”
He said there would be family crossing points once the fence is complete.
Not long ago, around 50,000 people were crossing the Torkham border, famously known as the “friendship gate”. Today, fewer than 3,000 people cross a day.
According to customs authorities, a few hundred trucks cross over daily, compared with 3,000 before the new border management system, during which time small businesses were said to be booming.
Still, Shinwari, the school principal, says he misses his Afghan students. “Despite being poor, they were top of their class. They were bold and energetic and would take part in every kind of art and cultural events. I fear the dropouts will join extremist groups since they are now immersed in that fear-driven and traumatising environment.”