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Afghans Are Desperate To Cross Afghanistan-Pakistan Border. This Man Does It All The Time

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now to the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where some people are desperate to cross. Our colleague Steve Inskeep is there and spoke with a man who crosses that border all the time.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We were driving toward Afghanistan when we saw the trucks. They were lined up one after the other, pulled over to the side of the road. The drivers were waiting.

Oh, here's some guys having tea by the side of the road underneath their truck.

In these dry mountains, there's no shade in mid-afternoon, except beneath or beside their colorfully painted vehicles.

I guess they're not too worried about traffic.

SAMANTHA BALABAN, BYLINE: Taking a nap.

INSKEEP: Yeah, there's a man, got a cloth over his head.

It protected his face from the sun. We were at the border to report on people leaving Afghanistan, but these drivers were waiting to get in, a line three miles long, snaking down a switchback road. Late in the day, we stopped to meet one of those drivers.

RAZZAK MOHMAND: (Speaking Pashto) Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Razzak Mohmand said he was heading for Afghanistan. He was a burly and bearded man with a face that would not look out of place at a truck stop in Texas. By the time we met, the sun was setting, and he no longer needed the shade of his truck. He sat in the gravel by the side of the road with a few other drivers near a highway sign that said slow, which was redundant.

MOHMAND: (Through interpreter) I've been here around 15 to 20 hours.

INSKEEP: Fifteen to 20 hours.

His truck was loaded with cement. He was bound for Jalalabad, the first major city inside Afghanistan. Taliban or no Taliban, somebody was building there. We asked Razzak about his work through our Pakistani producer, Abdul Sattar.

Do you do this a lot?

ABDUL SATTAR, BYLINE: (Speaking Urdu).

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

MOHMAND: (Speaking Pashto).

(CROSSTALK)

SATTAR: This is the routine.

INSKEEP: OK.

You're hearing multiple voices because Razzak was Afghan, most comfortable speaking Pashto. Our colleague Sattar spoke Urdu. Fortunately, a nearby Pakistani policeman had both languages and helped with translation. I'd speak in English, which Sattar translated into Urdu, which the cop clarified in Pashto, which Razzak answered, and then we came back the other way. It was a slow process, but Razzak had time. The drivers here expected to wait several days for their turn at the border checkpoint.

Do you like this work?

SATTAR: (Speaking Urdu).

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

MOHMAND: (Speaking Pashto).

(CROSSTALK)

SATTAR: I do it under compulsion.

INSKEEP: He needs to make a living. He says the worst part is the waiting, which he called heartbreaking. At least it wasn't the worst place to wait. We were high on a mountain slope. The sun was about to set, resting like an orange ball atop a ridge to the west. We had a view far into a valley, though not far enough to spy the border down there. Razzak sat in the gravel in his open-toed shoes, fingering a stone to pass the time. During all the 40 years of his life, his country has been at war. Long ago, invading Russians attacked his home village. His family fled and never returned. They're still within Afghanistan, internally displaced, which is another way to say their lives are on hold, waiting.

How do you feel about the future of Afghanistan?

SATTAR: (Speaking Urdu).

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

MOHMAND: (Speaking Pashto).

INSKEEP: "I don't know," he says, "I just wait for my vehicle to go inside and come outside." Every day, Razzak waits in line at this border is a day he spends away from his wife and eight kids, or at least seven. One of his sons was sitting on the gravel, having traveled with his father.

How do you feel about their future?

SATTAR: (Speaking Urdu).

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: Again, the question passed through multiple languages and the answer came back.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

SATTAR: So there is no business, we have only transport, so that's what they will do.

INSKEEP: Can your children have a better life than you have?

SATTAR: (Speaking Urdu).

INSKEEP: "I wish," he said, but seemed resigned. Eventually, the concrete he's hauling will reach Jalalabad, something will get built that Razzak may never see. He'll be driving another load by then, back in line.

SATTAR: (Speaking Urdu).

INSKEEP: (Speaking Urdu) Thank you.

SATTAR: (Speaking Urdu).

INSKEEP: The story would be more dramatic if it ended with the trucks beginning to move. Instead, we had to leave the drivers, still waiting for whatever comes next.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINS RATTLING)

INSKEEP: Our producer, Samantha Balaban, touched the chains that dangled from Razzak's truck in line. Almost every truck was brightly painted orange and blue, yellow and green, often with metal scroll work or painted eyes. The front of Razzak's truck was also painted with the expression mashallah. People say it in case of good news. Its many translations include by the grace of God or God willed it to be so.

SATTAR: Let's go, guys.

BALABAN: Beat the setting sun.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSE COOK'S "AZUL")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Steve Inskeep reporting from Pakistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSE COOK'S "AZUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.