Our lives depend on cross-border trade

A story by Begum Jan

Childhood and marriage 

I was 13 years old when my father married me off to his nephew. At 40, I’m now mother to six children. A year before my engagement, my parents left their ancestral home in Chakhansur district to settle in the Kang district of Nimruz province. After moving neighbourhoods, my parents bought six jeribs of land [three acres] in a village on the border with Iran. We built a family home on some of it and used the rest of the land for agriculture purposes. 

My late husband also had a small business on the border with Iran. He imported fuel to be sold in the bazaar in Kang. In return, he transported sewing machines, irons and other appliances to Iran. He combined that with farming our land. We were satisfied with life. 

Life under the Taliban regime

I was too young to remember much about the communist regime and the civil war in Afghanistan but when the Taliban took over, I was in my early teens. As a newlywed, and because the Taliban didn’t allow women to work outside the house or go to school, I had to stay at home. 

Life under the Taliban regime was very tough. People didn’t have jobs; women didn’t have any freedom and poverty was everywhere. On top of that, we experienced severe drought, which was disastrous for farmers like us.

I have the worst memories from when the Taliban were in power. Every time I remember how they treated my husband, my mother-in-law and other women from my close circle, I become terrified. 

I still remember a woman from our village who had fallen ill and had to be taken to Zaranj city to see a doctor. Back then, there were no proper roads and the ones that existed were not paved.

When you travelled, the roads were so dusty that it would leave a sand trail behind you. People had to travel in big, lorry type cars that always caused car sickness. I was told that upon arrival in the city, the woman was asked to wait for her turn outside the doctor’s office. As she sat there waiting, desperate for fresh air because she was too sick from the journey, she decided to lift her burka and show her face in public. A member of the Taliban’s ‘vice and virtue police’ spotted her. He grabbed her by the hair, beat her and threw her onto the ground. She died there and then. 

On another occasion, a relative of mine was wrongly imprisoned by the Taliban. My husband tried to intervene in the case, appealing to the Taliban authorities but they refused to release him. One day my husband took some food and clothes to the man in jail unaware that he would escape that same night and cross the border to Iran. 

At two in the morning, on a hot summer night, while all of us including my small children were sleeping in the courtyard, two armed men stormed our house and started attacking my husband. I was very frightened. My children were terrified. The men kept asking my husband where he had hidden the prisoner, but my husband didn’t know anything about the escape or where the man was now. The Taliban wouldn’t stop beating my husband, so I had to send word for my elderly mother-in-law to come and ask the Taliban to stop. She came at once, apologising to the men and begged them to stop. She promised them that my husband would present himself at the police station first thing in the morning, but the Taliban turned their sticks around and hit my mother-in-law several times. 

There was also the time when girls and women of my extended family were refugees in the village of Dust Mohammad, [in Hirmand county of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province], came to Afghanistan to attend a wedding party in our village. In those days, people could cross the border easily as there were no restrictions. As is the custom, the girls were playing our local instrument called dayereh. They were laughing and singing. An elderly Talib who had a grey beard saw the young women having fun. He came and took the instrument from the girls and smashed it. He also hit the girls with the stick he was carrying. I asked the old man why would you destroy the dayereh and hit the girls!? His answer was, ‘because I’m a member of the “virtue and vice” [Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice] police!’

It was precisely due to this oppression and tyranny by the Taliban that my family and I decided to leave Afghanistan. We crossed the border to Zabul province, in Iran, where we lived for two years, but life for Afghan refugees was very hard.

Every time we went out, the Iranian authorities asked us for identity cards and other government-issued documents that we didn’t have. People were constantly harassed. 


In 2002, when Afghanistan had a new government and President Hamid Karzai took over [as the interim leader] we decided to return to Afghanistan, to our home.

The first noticeable change we saw was the construction of a road from the main city in Kang to our village. This led to many people commuting to and from the city every day. 

Village in Kang district
Village in Kang district

Most of the people in my village, and those in need, received food aid. Wells were dug up for clean drinking water in our village. That was soon supported by major water mains and pipes delivering water to the properties. Then came a clinic. It was the first to be constructed in our district. In the wider Zaranj city, the number of hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and other similar facilities increased. There were far more nurses, doctors and midwives than we had ever seen. 

New schools for girls and boys were built. Dozens of female teachers were hired. In bigger cities across the country, universities opened their doors and women took the opportunity to finish their higher education.

Women started to go to work. They launched their own small businesses. People were free. It was the first time that women went out to vote, free of any fear. We even had women who nominated themselves in the elections.

Groups working on issues of women and children started spreading their awareness campaigns about women’s rights, personal freedoms and [many other issues that were important to the local population] to far remote areas. 

In 2005, when my husband was busy farming our land, he suffered an accident. He later died from his injuries.

I was now the head of my household and had to provide for my four girls and three boys. I needed to start earning a living. I learned about a number of women from my village who were involved in the trading of goods from Iran to Afghanistan.

In 2006, I had saved up ten thousand Afghani [US$165] and borrowed an additional 10,000 Afghanis to start my small handicraft business. I bought embroidered clothes that were handmade by my fellow Baluch women on the Afghanistan side of the border. Then, I exported these and sold them on the Iranian side. 

Within a few months of launching my business, I managed to find a great number of loyal customers who worked in Zabul province in Iran. It took me an hour and half by car to take my locally sourced goods to Zabul. On the way back, I brought eggs, beans, chicken and other food items to be sold in my village. The Afghan border police knew that I and my other female partners were poor women trying to make a living, so they didn’t ask us for a bribe, but the Iranian border police charged us 1,000 Toman/Iranian Rial [under 50 US cents]. 

By making five or six trips a month to Zabul, in Iran, and back, I earned between 100,000 and 150,000 Iranian toman [US$10 to 15]. This was more than enough for my family’s needs.

All of my kids were enrolled at school and were busy studying very hard. 

It was not all rosy though. I could never forget the day when I, along with seven of my fellow Baluch women, were stopped by members of the Afghan Security Forces. We were coming back from Zabul. Each one of us was carrying food items and other necessities: eggs, baked beans, bread and a gas cylinder. As soon as the soldiers saw us, they fired into the air. In a panic we stopped and dropped everything. We ran towards our homes. They took all of our goods. I cried all the way to my village. When I reached home my children were crying too.

In 2011, the Iranian government constructed a wall along the border with Afghanistan. It had several crossing gates. The wall is very close to our village. This meant that with a little bribe to the Iranian border guards, we could continue our trade, crossing the border with no trouble. It wasn’t just women like me whose lives depended on cross border trade but men too. As a Baluch woman, whose tribespeople live on both sides of the border, it was not just trade for me. It was also about community ties – attending each other’s wedding parties and funerals. 

Life was good and I was respected. I even managed to find a great suitor for my ten-year-old daughter. It was thanks to that business of mine that I was able to marry my eldest daughter in a dignified and honourable way. 

In 2016, the Iranian authorities further tightened restrictions on the border, closing all the gates. People who needed to cross to Iran were asked to provide a visa, passport and other official documentation.

We couldn’t afford the cost of any of that so we didn’t apply for any documents, which is why we couldn’t continue our trade and small business. 

Like me, other people in my village have relatives and family members across the border in Iran but because of these tough restrictions we can’t see them anymore. We can’t be part of each other’s happiness and sorrows. Our only mode of communication is by telephone, with mobile phones. 

Milak official border area, Afghanistan
Noozai village, Milak official border area, Nimruz-Iranian border. Photo by OSDR

These tougher border restrictions have pushed people out of work, which is why some men in my village have turned to drug smuggling.

Some of our male villagers are buying and transporting drugs to Iran. I’m not involved in this work myself because women can’t transport drugs when the gates are shut, and I don’t have older sons to do it for me. Keeping drugs at home and transporting them across the border is a very dangerous business. There is always a risk of being raided and imprisoned so I personally stay away from it especially in the current circumstances as I still have very young children. 

However, up until four to five years ago, I had been housing dozens of young men and women who were trying to leave Afghanistan. These people were paying human smugglers to take them to Iran, Turkey and beyond.

Smugglers would bring people from all over
Afghanistan to our village where they divided them into
small groups. Agents asked us to let them lodge with
us. I prepared them food and they paid me for it. That
was a vital lifeline for many families here.

Migrants bus station Zaranj city
Migrants at a bus station in Zaranj city

Each day, from our village alone, between 300 and 400 people crossed the border to Iran. Now, not a soul can cross because a barbed-wire fence splits our village and Afghanistan from Iran and there are security cameras everywhere too.

Currently, I sew traditional Baluch dresses and accessories for women. There are people in Zaranj city who send me orders with samples, and I sew it for them. I make between two to three million Iranian tomans [US$50–70] a month. This is how life goes by.

Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

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