Mohammad Tahir Khan looks thinner than other Afghans. He’s wearing a red-coloured shalwar qameez which matches his ruddy face, a turban tied on his head in the Afghan manner. An old watch sits on his wrist but his long grey beard, thinner than his body, makes him resemble an Uighur man from the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province of China.

We are in Nushki valley to meet Tahir, an Afghan refugee in his 60s who arrived in Pakistan with his family following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He now farms land in Nushki that he rents from a local landlord. Nushki district in Balochistan borders Afghanistan and is situated some 140 km to the southwest of Quetta, the provincial capital.

After offering the evening prayers, Tahir sits down with Eos to talk about his family and life in Balochistan, where he has spent the last four decades. Besides his mother tongue Pashto, Tahir has command over the area’s local languages, including Balochi and Brahui.

Tahir hails from Lashkargah in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, which borders the Nushki and Chaghi districts in Balochistan. Like his father and grandfather, Tahir cultivated his lands in Helmand.

“I am a born farmer,” he tells us over a cup of milky tea. “To my knowledge, we are fourth generation farmers, cultivating the lands, and now my own children work as farmers on the lands too.”

The father of 11, most of whom are daughters he says, Tahir lives in a mud house. He begins his story from Afghanistan’s Saur Revolution of 1978, also known as the April Coup, when members of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan overthrew President Mohammed Daoud Khan, who was killed along with his family members and some loyalists.

The Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan created a socialist government and aligned itself with Russia and this is often seen as an event that marked the beginning of the decades-long conflict in the country.

“Ever since the beginning of the Saur Revolution, the security situation has gone from bad to worse,” Tahir tells us recalling his days in Afghanistan. “Since then, [the country] has become synonymous with war and conflict, where there has always been uncertainty.”

Due to Nushki’s proximity with the border, many Afghans fled to the Balochistan district, especially when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Nokjo is a tiny village some seven kilometres from Nushki town and Muhammad Tahir lives close by. Like other parts of the district, there are cultivated lands in the aforementioned seven-kilometres distance. Tahir began cultivating one of these pieces of lands, comprising five acres, back in 2001.

At the time, the entire belt of Rakhshan division, in predominantly western parts of Balochistan, comprising Nuskhi, Chaghi, Washuk and Kharan districts, was extremely barren and dry.

“Due to a lack of economic opportunities, we started cultivating the dry lands into patches of green,” says Tahir, recalling his early days in Balochistan. “We brought in seeds of fruit, vegetables and grains. Also, we had the skills and techniques on how to cultivate the barren and dry lands. We applied all that here: today, it has become successful. “

“Besides us, the locals, too, are now attracted to the agriculture sector, to cultivate their lands, and we have taught our skills to them.”

Fighting to farming

Afghan refugees used their farming skills from their hometowns in Helmand province to cultivate swatches of barren land in western Balochistan. Credit: Akbar Notezai via Eos.

Tahir’s story is indicative of a quiet revolution that has taken place in parts of Balochistan. Lands that were once considered barren or at best fallow, have been turned green through the sheer hard work and skill of Afghan refugees, who have brought their know-how to bear on the province’s agriculture.

These are the same refugees who, in popular perception at least, are considered burdens on Pakistan’s economy at best or as part of criminal syndicates or national security threats at worst. The reality is decidedly different, at least in the parts we are in.

As the sun sets, and darkness falls over the area, Tahir recalls how he moved to Pakistan after the 1979 invasion. “We left for Balochistan on camels along with our families,” he says, his mood seeming more sombre as he speaks. “It was a chaotic situation, so we had to leave our lands and houses behind.”

Then, Tahir was a teenager with “hardly a beard or moustache,” he says, adding that most of the people he knew, including his relatives, became mujahideen or guerrilla fighters, taking up arms against the Soviet forces. He joined too. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was not as strictly monitored as it is now, so it was easier to move back and forth between the two countries, and Tahir did that over the next four or five years, he says.

He first arrived in the Chaghi district of Balochistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan and Iran. “Like Nushki, it was barren desert and dry,” he says, pointing to an area in the distance where, he says, he and his family cultivated lands before moving to Nushki, after he left his fighting life behind.

“Although there were some little agricultural lands in Balochistan, they were not conducive to farming at a greater level,” he says. “We, the Afghans, introduced a new culture of cultivating the lands, where there is now enough agriculture to generate revenue.”

It is unfortunate how a refugee’s story is of heartbreak. They leave behind everything to start their lives over from scratch, facing much hardship just to be able to feed their children in another land. You will hear such stories from Afghans across Balochistan.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are around 3,00,000 people displaced in refugee camps in Balochistan, out of the 1.4 million registered refugees in the entire country.

Afghan refugees continue to pour into Balochistan, Tahir tells us, where they move from pillar to post in search of a prosperous and peaceful life. “Although we left everything behind in Afghanistan, we did not leave one thing: our skills, which we teach our children,” he says.

In Nushki, there are verdant fields of various types of vegetables, grapes, watermelons and muskmelons, among other produce. These have prospered despite the fact that Nushki, like other places, has been adversely impacted by climate change; the famous Zangi Nawar lake, for example, continues to dry up during droughts.

The oasis-turned-lake, Zangi Nawar, is located in the interior of Nushki, a 40-minute drive from the town. The blue water further adds to its beauty. It is also a point where migratory birds are said to fly to from Siberia. Over the decades, like other places in the entire belt, it has been hit by drought. On average, it rains here once every seven years.

In recent months, however, Nushki has been in the throes of torrential rains and flash floods, which have wreaked havoc in the town, along with other parts of the province. Experts blame climate change for the unprecedented rains and floods, especially in Nushki, which has traditionally recorded low rainfall. The rains may have brought havoc to human settlements, but they have also restored the scenic beauty of places like Zangi Nawar.

Balochistan lies in a zone that generally sees low precipitation. The province receives approximately only 176 mm of rain annually; its western parts, including Nushki and Chaghi districts, receive much less, lower than 50 mm. As a result, agriculture production has been either insufficient or non-existent in these areas.

Turning deserts green

Zahid Mengal himself originally hails from Nushki district, and is currently the head of Azat Foundation, a local, non-governmental organisation in Quetta. His organisation has been carrying out relief efforts in the drought-hit districts of Chaghi and Nushki, among other places, since the early 2000s.

“In the late 90s and early 2000, the entire western parts of the province, including Chaghi and Nushki were severely hit by drought,” he tells us, recalling his experiences working in the said towns. “This kind of drought, since then, has continued to strike places more regularly, which has affected agriculture.” He adds that the problem with drought is that its effects are felt slowly over years but are dire.

However, he says that the arrival of electricity in early 2000 also coincided with a second wave of Afghan refugees coming into the province, following the US invasion of Afghanistan. This has, ironically, provided a little boost to agriculture in the area, which was on the verge of dying out.

Based in Quetta, Aziz Barech is an agriculturalist. He does not mince words while speaking to Eos. “It is crystal clear that we, the locals, do not want to do any kind of work,” he says, adding that it is the Afghan refugees who have been working and harvesting fields in the entire province.

He cites many reasons for landowners preferring to hire Afghans to work on their fields. For one, with the Afghans being refugees, hiring them is cheaper. Secondly, many of them are skilled farmers. Thirdly, their entire families get involved in the process of harvesting. And lastly, Afghan labour is available everywhere in Balochistan.

Thanks to the recent rains and the availability of Afghan refugee labour, Balochistan’s agriculture has revived, he feels. He credits Afghan farmers for shifting farming methods and introducing ‘tunnel farming’ because of which “we can now get vegetables,” he says.

Tunnel farming grows vegetables beneath protective plastic tunnels. The method helps produce vegetables that are nutritious and creates large yields. The use of tunnels has enabled farmers to protect their crops from inclement weather and differing temperatures.

“Afghan refugees turn such barren and desert lands into green fields, which has been their hallmark ever since their arrival in Balochistan,” says Safiullah Shahwani, who has written a lot about how climate change has impacted the province. “They do so, even though it is a herculean task to begin with, but it is not impossible.”

Barech concedes that “our agriculture’s survival is dependent on the Afghan refugees.”

Mall town

Mall is a tiny town in Nushki district, a one-hour car drive on the Quetta-Taftan highway. Locals describe it as a jungle once upon a time, dotted with wild trees and shrubs. People still tell stories of spotting foxes, jackals and other wild animals in the area; in fact, people may still encounter foxes and jackals in the dead of night, in search of food.

Before entering the proper Mall town, a cone-shaped hill, known locally as the Malla-na-Mekh (the nail of Mall) welcomes outsiders from the highway. Mall is a junction, where mountain ranges, the plains, and the desert intermingle with one another.

Although there was some agriculture in Mall earlier as well, its transformation since the 1980s has been remarkable. It is now completely green, thanks to cultivated lands on both sides of the road. Most of these have been cultivated by Afghan refugees.

Our destination is the Jan Baig area, situated at the end of the green belt of Mall. Sher Khan, who is in his late 40s, sits in front of his mud-built garage along with his brother and children. There is a tractor standing in front of the garage.

Like Mohammad Tahir, before moving to Nushki, Sher Khan used to cultivate lands with his family in Chaghi, the neighbouring district in the same belt. However, they moved to Mall a long time ago, to come over to the Jan Baig area. They, too, are originally from Helmand.

Locals believe the Afghans are good at farming because of their experience in the Helmand basin area, which they helped develop. But the arrival of electricity in Mall about 15 years ago also helped boost agriculture, since it allowed a number of tube wells to spring up – though farmers now complain about their electricity bills.

Sitting in the garage, Sher’s brother Ameer Hamza, talks about his family and their experience farming in Helmand.

“We brought new agriculture techniques and new crops to Balochistan,” Sher Khan interjects. “We cultivated the lands, and most of the lands were fallow lands.”

The land they cultivate in the Jan Baig area comprises 250 acres. By 2000, it was a fallow and barren tract. “For over four years, we put our resources and energy to cultivate this land,” Sher Jan says. “We did not give up, and we were optimistic about cultivating it at the end of the day, because we had already farmed such fallow and barren lands in the Chaghi area, and we had expertise.”

While standing in the lush green fields cultivated by Sher Jan and his family members, we can see different types of vegetables including onions, grass, grapes, date trees and other kinds of trees, among other things.

“We were in loss for four years, working to cultivate and turn it green,” Sher Jan tells us standing next to the grass field, wearing a cap and a cream-coloured shalwar-qameez. “Despite the loss, we paid the landlord the rent of eight lakh [8,00,000] rupees annually. Now, we earn more than enough.”

While Sher Jan and his family have met with success in their venture, there is no basic education and health infrastructure in villages such as Mall. It is worse for Afghans, who are undocumented. Sher Jan’s son is 12 years old and works in the field along with his father. “I have not been to a school,” he tells us unapologetically. “I am here to help my father.”

Sher Jan says he too, like Tahir, is from a family of farmers, and that this source of livelihood will also pass down to his children. “This is why we are working in the field, day in and day out, to earn a livelihood,” he says.

During our interviews for background research in Mall, we learn how people feel that neither the provincial or the federal governments have done anything for the agriculture sector in the area. Instead, farmers say the government has only compounded their woes. For instance, they tell us that when their crops are ready, the government does not buy from them and instead imports from Iran and Afghanistan. This is pushing us to the wall, one farmer says to us.

Although the Afghan refugees do not want to talk about it in detail, they say they are still standing tall against any type of challenges to sell their agriculture products. They claim their produce is of the best quality, and they send it to the markets in Quetta to sell.

Unlike Sher Jan, Ameer Hamza is a conversationalist; he speaks without a pause. He tells us that you need men to watch the fields all the time, especially in places like Nushki and Chaghi, where it hardly rains. “Due to the lack of water and the barren land, there has to be a labour force to take care of the cultivated fields and manage it properly. We do it because this is our skill.”

As we stand and listen to Sher Jan speak about the land turning from barren to green, a breeze wafts over the lush green fields, which sway, as if nodding in agreement.

Enormous skill gap

Chaghi, the largest district of Balochistan, shares a border with Afghanistan and Iran. It is part desert, part plain and part mountains. Like other parts of the province, there are different names for different mountains, deserts, and plain areas in the district. One of the mountains is called Hoshter Koh, which in Balochi means “the camel-shaped mountain”.

Areas in Hoshter Koh have cultivated lands. One of the lands belongs to Mohammad Yahya, a local of Dalbandin, situated some 20 km from the headquarters of district Chaghi. Yahya does not farm his own land. We asked why he has been unable to cultivate their lands which are not barren. He says it has to do with skills, or a lack thereof. The skill gap between Afghans and locals is enormous, he says.

For instance, in his own words, he says he once cultivated the land after much hardship, hiring local farmers from the same district. Contrary to his expectations, it was not productive; so much so he had to feed his watermelons and muskmelons to his goats and sheep, since they failed to ripen as per the market demands. He suffered much in losses.

Now he has rented his land to the Afghans. One, because he does not want to go into loss and he knows he will reap the profits just from the rental income. “They are skilled, unlike our people,” he tells us, adding how landowners are reliant on refugees.

Naeem is an Afghan refugee who has been living in Chaghi for three decades. He did not give a second thought to the opportunity to rent land to cultivate. “Unlike locals, it is our skill, because we, including the family, do not want to do another kind of work,” he says. “Locals, besides farming, have got other jobs to do as well, including in government, private and other labour jobs, while we can only do farming. That is perhaps why we are better than the locals at cultivating the lands.”

Although there are other locals who cultivate their lands on their own in both Chaghi and Nushki, interviews suggest a difference between the work of the locals and Afghans.

Mohammed Tahir said as much when we were with him in Nushki.

“If a local can produce 100 bags of grain, I can produce more than triple of that,” he says. “The difference in our work is like between the earth and the sky.”

Baloch Khan Mandai, the landowner where Tahir works, had joined us that night we met.

“[Afghans’] livelihoods are dependent on the land we rent to them,” he says sitting next to Tahir. “They put all their energy into cultivating the land.”

The Afghans may not be pioneers of agriculture, but it’s safe to say the agriculture sector in Balochistan has witnessed a boom following the arrival of Afghan refugees. Tahir says Afghans have also transferred their skills to locals, and there are many who do it on their own.

“What more do I want if another Muslim brother receives, like me, monthly 10,000 rupees-12,000 rupees from cultivating land?” Tahir asks humbly.

We ask him one last question before leaving: After all this time, why does he not want to leave for the country he calls home?

“This is now my home,” he replies immediately. “And I get two meals a day with respect, and I work along with my family on land and am treated with respect. When I return home every night, I do not feel like a stranger here.”

This article originally appeared in Eos, Dawn’s Sunday magazine, on November 20, 2022, and can be accessed here.