Unravelling the ‘geo-political myth’ of the Pakistan Afghanistan Border
Writer and photographer Suchitra Vijayan has spent the last two years collecting stories of the bustle and heave of humanity along the Pakistan Afghanistan border, examining in close detail the impact of the Durand Line — a century-old frontier created by the British Empire that now serves as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On the Pakistani side, the Durand line runs along the North-West Frontier Province, Balochistan and the FATA (Federally administered area.) On the Afghanistan side, the line traces the eastern limit of the Helmand and Kunar provinces. The Pashtun and Balochi tribes who live along the border are fiercely independent ethnic groups who have made demands for their own states. Taliban ties to the Pashtuns who straddle both sides of the border further complicate the situation.
The Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a major NATO supply route and recent years have seen rising tensions in the area, including protests in Pakistan demanding a stop to the passage of NATO trucks. In 2012, the route was closed for seven months. When Pakistan finally agreed to re-open the supply route, Vijayan spent 24 hours at the border documenting the seething wave of humanity crossing the divide from both sides.
“What really divides the border is an iron chain that is raised up in the night,” says Vijayan of her experience visiting the Torkhum pass. “Two feet ahead of me were Pakistani guards wearing black Shalwar Kamiz.” There is an immigration check point, but most of the time “people just walk in” she says.
“Border crossings are very common, especially among Pashtuns, sometimes daily to meet relatives, attend schools, work or sometimes just to play a game of cricket before dusk,” she notes in her writings, collected during a number of trips both independently and embedded with American security forces. Vijayan describes the movement of humans across the divide as largely unchecked. “This constant human migration along the border, “ she writes, “disturbs what was previously considered immobile by the state and consolidates what was thought to be divided.”
Focusing on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is emblematic of the larger theme of Vijayan’s work, which deals with the human consequences of imposed margins. Using images, videos and words, she documents narratives that form identity. Vijayan’s approach challenges conventional coverage of the region. In her work, the personal is present alongside the political, and memory is as important as established history.
Vijayan previously worked as a lawyer and human rights advocate, serving with the UN War Crimes Tribunal, and was a co-founder of the Resettlement Legal Project in Cairo, providing legal aid to Iraqi refugees. Combining her experience in the field with her passion for photography, Vijayan has launched several ambitious projects. Currently she is working on “Borderlands”, a journey along India’s winding border, starting with Bangladesh in the east and ending with Pakistan in the west.
Vijayan’s preoccupation with borders in the sub-continent is not arbitrary. She first became interested in Afghanistan because of her desire to understand a country she considers an extension of her own home country, India. She traces her cultural roots to the “larger South Asia”, which includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
”Your passport might say Indian,” says Vijayan, ”but in a way your cultural heritage spreads all over the subcontinent.”
Suchitra Vijayan is currently working on another project she launched in 2012, called “Borderlands” which has taken her on travels tracing the border India shares with Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma, along the way exploring what she describes as, “The state abstracted discourses of citizenship, sovereignty, and territoriality versus the reality of living.” You can read more about the Borderlands project here.