Karim Jan* spent the festival of Eid al-Fitr sitting in the scorching May sun as he had spent the previous five days, waiting in a long queue of traffic to get into Iran. Like hundreds of other drivers, Jan came to this desolate town of Mand, on the Pakistan border with Iran, from across Balochistan.
As they waited, some drivers slept in their Iranian pickup trucks , known as Zamyads, while others slept out under the open sky.
Jan had the mandatory token for crossing the border, but did not succeed in getting across to pick up his intended load of illegal fuel. When he reached the security checkpoint, he was told to turn back because the daily limit of 400 Zamyads had been reached.
“I’ve been transporting fuel from Iran for two decades. I’ve never faced so many difficulties. My family will die of hunger if I go back this time without a trip to Iran,” said Jan, resting under a tree as the temperature rose above 40C (104F).
The business of transporting fuel between Iran and the province of Balochistan has gone on for decades. Each day more than 1,000 Zamyads used to make this journey, selling to 1.5 million people in the Makran region of Balochistan. Iranian fuel also reaches five million people in other regions where Pakistani oil companies have no petrol stations.
The barrels of fuel are driven on dirt tracks through the mountainous terrain of Balochistan. Where they can, drivers take a route to bypass checkpoints along the porous border.
In 2020, Pakistan began fencing the 600 mile (960km) border between Balochistan and Iran to curb cross-border separatist militancy and smuggling. Iran began erecting fencing on its side a few years ago but has not completed the work.
There are checkpoints of the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) on the Pakistan side and the Revolutionary Guards Corps on the Iranian side, with sporadic crackdowns by both countries.
Last month, the FC announced that only Zamyads with authorised tokens would be allowed to cross the border with numbers limited to 400 a day. Jan said three years ago more than 1,000 vehicles would cross every day. “But now we hardly have one trip a month,” he said.
In May Abdul Razak Dawood, the ministerial adviser on commerce to the Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, told the Pakistan senate that an agreement had been signed with Iran to build markets at the border to facilitate local trade.
A government official, who requested anonymity, said: “Authorities in Pakistan think it is an alternative to informal trade, but it is not. [The] fencing has already left thousands of people jobless. If local people don’t get alternatives, militancy and the law and order situation will get worse.”
He said the latest crackdown started after the prime minister’s office wrote to the authorities in Balochistan demanding an end to fuel smuggling because of its impact on the legal Pakistani fuel trade.
“The authorities can’t curb it completely,” he said. “A fuel crisis would emerge in the region if it was stopped, which would also leave thousands of families starving who depend on the illegal trade.”
Mehrab Khan*, a 37-year-old driver, is worried about the new restrictions. “There are many more rules than before. We are stopped at around half a dozen security checkpoints, even after getting the tokens.”
If this business stops, we don't know how we would survive ... there is only hunger for us
Relations between Iran and Pakistan are strained; both accuse each other of sheltering militants and of not doing enough to close their bases. In 2019, Iran warned that Pakistan would “pay a heavy price” for allegedly harbouring militants who killed 27 Revolutionary Guards.
In April 2019, when Balochi separatists killed 14 soldiers from Pakistan’s armed forces, Pakistan’s foreign minister accused Iran of sheltering insurgents and asked it to act.
Balochistan and Iran’s province of Sistan and Baluchistan across the border are the poorest provinces in both countries, with majority ethnic Baloch populations.
Maryam Zia Baloch, a research analyst with the World Bank, said: “Transportation of fuel from Iran into Pakistan is the main source of livelihood for thousands of families. Closure of the Pakistan-Iran border could be deemed as families going hungry and without food on the table for days.”
Abid Rahim*, 32, who also transports petrol, said “If this business stops, we don’t know how we will survive. There are no opportunities like factory work or other construction work for us in Balochistan. There is only hunger for us.”
Rahim used to earn 40,000 rupees (£180) a trip. “In the past, I could easily make five trips easily in a month, but now it is hard to go once in a month,” he said.
In late February, Humayoun Zafar*, 28, loaded his Zamyad with fuel and offloaded it at Shamsar gate in Sistan and Baluchistan. But Zafar was then not allowed by Iranian guards to return.
“We were stranded at the border. They kept telling us to wait until they opened it, but they never did. When we ran out of food, we had to break the chains and try to enter. The guards fired at us, four people were killed and more than a dozen injured.
“No one came to take the injured to the hospital and there was no mobile network so they couldn’t tell their families about the attack.”
Amnesty International condemned the violence, saying Iran’s Revolutionary Guards unlawfully used lethal force against unarmed fuel drivers and calling for independent investigation. The killings also sparked protests and Pakistan closed its borders with Iran. Thousands of drivers were trapped in remote border villages. Abid Rahim was one of them.
“A fellow driver got severely ill. We took him to the FC camp and asked them to let him go to Iran because his family was there. FC didn’t allow it. People took him back home but he died on the way,” he said.
“Those were the worst 10 days of my life. We were not allowed to drink water from the water supply tank in the FC camp. We had hot water from a nearby river. We had skin rashes because we had to wear dirty clothes as we had no spare clothes.”
But the fuel carriers said they had to do this work as they had no alternative. “This work is life-threatening,” said Karim Jan. “When we reach the border to get the token, FC asks us to take fences and blocks to their post on the mountains. We are asked to drop their labourers to other security checkpoints.
“At times, we are beaten. If there were any other way of earning a living, I would not have faced this much shame on a daily basis. We do it for survival.”
No one at the Frontier Corps responded to requests for comment.
• Name has been changed