Aug 2, 2008

World - Bribery rules on Afghan Roads

On a hot summer afternoon in the chaotic border town of Torkham in eastern Afghanistan, Mohammad Younas is counting the money he needs to bribe local customs officials.
Torkham, in Nangarhar province, is one of the busiest crossing points between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Every day, hundreds of trucks and cars, laden with passengers and goods, pass through.
The 35-year-old Afghan truck driver is carrying 15 tons of tomatoes he picked up in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
Trials and tribulations
However, before driving towards the city of Jalalabad Younas has to wait an hour to get to the front of the queue.
One Afghan customs official checks his papers and gives him the green light, but then asks Younas to wait until his papers are "cleared".
After a few minutes of waiting, Younas pulls out 5,000 Afghanis ($108).
''You see this bribe? If I don't pay now, they will make me wait here for hours. The tomatoes will be spoiled in this hot weather."
Younas has agreed to let me ride in his truck so I can see for myself the trials and tribulations faced by the average Afghan transporter.
The tall, blue-eyed driver hands the money over to the customs official and is finally allowed to leave Torkham.
''We have better roads these days. We can play music and have more independence. But look at the level of corruption,'' he says.
Younas began work in the transport industry shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
His village, Samarkhel, was caught in the fighting between Soviet and Mujahideen forces. Like millions of other Afghans, he took refuge in Pakistan.
"I was a young boy then. We fled and lived in a refugee camp. I started as an assistant truck driver and after 16 years I learned how to drive. For all these years I have been driving mostly between Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Rude police
Younas chooses a Pashto music cassette to play as he steers his massive truck on one of Afghanistan's busiest roads. ''I am an experienced driver," he assures me.
As we barrel down the Torkham-Jalalabad highway, Younas complains about corruption and the "rude behaviour of Afghan police".
We arrive at a check post in the Daka area and a uniformed police officer asks Younas for his documents.
After a 30-minute wait, it becomes clear that the police officer wants money or else we will wait here forever.
After much bargaining, Younas doles out 600 Afghanis ($13).
"Nothing gets done without money these days. During the Taleban days, we didn't have to pay bribes," he says, visibly angry.
For about 45 minutes, Younas is quiet and the Pashto music blares as we travel in the scorching heat. I try to engage Younas, but in his frustrated state he is not interested in conversation.
As we get close to the Mohammand Dara district, a passing American convoy orders all traffic to halt and Younas finally begins talking again.
"This is a joke - the road is blocked again!"
We wait for another 30 minutes before we get the green light from the American soldier waving from his humvee.
Minutes later we arrive at another police check post. This time, the police demand a crate of tomatoes. Younas orders his assistant to give them a rotten one.
'We will all die'
Younas refuses to be photographed for fear of retribution. However, most of his fellow drivers are keen to be photographed and to have their voices heard.
Take Mohmmand Nader: "I leave Peshawar and we start paying bribes. Once we cross into our country, we start paying bribes. We have got used to it by now."
Nangarhar police spokesman Ghafoar Khan is defensive: "We have in the past sacked corrupt traffic policemen and other police officials, we have also prosecuted them. If these drivers help us with some evidence, we will sack the corrupt officials. We are very serious about this."
But drivers like Mohammad Ebrahim accuse the Afghan government of turning a blind eye to what he calls robbery.
''If we don't pay the traffic police or the customs official, they will make us wait for hours. And we can't afford to wait. Corruption is everywhere," he says while waiting outside a customs checkpoint on the outskirts of Jalalabad.
My journey with Younas on the 74-km Torkham-Jalalabad highway took three hours and 45 minutes.
We stop for lunch at a Jalalabad restaurant. Younas is soaked in sweat and visibly tired.
"Corruption in Afghanistan is like Aids - if our government doesn't punish corrupt officials, we will all die," he says, before we say our farewells.

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