Providence's Alternative Source!

Pakistan's slave trade
Afghan refugees sold into prostitution; indentured servitude flourishes; and scenes from a slave auction

[] JAMRUD, PAKISTAN -- The world is watching. America's intervention in Afghanistan has not only provided Pakistan with a rare opportunity to court the world's only superpower, it has also exposed Pakistan to the scrutiny of the Western press. This, at precisely the moment when General Pervez Musharraf, who became president only in June 2001, is struggling to cultivate democratic culture in a country still reeling from the reforms of General Zia ul-Haq in the late 1970s. By any measure, Musharraf has a long road ahead.

Precious few Americans know anything about the history of Pakistan, much less that ul-Haq's reforms consolidated conservative Islam's stranglehold on the national imagination. Fewer still know that, in the process of imposing Islamic law on the land, he created a culture of servitude for the poor. Among other things, ul-Haq's cultural reforms supported the creation of madrassas, religious secondary schools that instill Islamic fundamentalist values among the poorer classes -- and that ultimately led to the creation of the Taliban. Not only did the madrassas teach that women must serve their husbands, but that children should serve their elders. In many cases, the service of young Pakistani boys to their elders also includes the provision of sexual favors.

Servitude exists in many forms in Pakistan. Over the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of Afghan families -- eager to flee 20 years of war and three years of drought -- have sought safe haven in Pakistan, only to spend the rest of their lives working to pay off the debts they accumulated to get there. They do so by becoming indentured laborers, often at brick factories, and by sending their children to carpet factories that crave small fingers. Indentured servitude is not only legal but ubiquitous in Pakistan, and servant culture thrives: the wealthy can have a driver, three maids, a cook, and a night watchman for less than $75 a month.

And then there are the slaves. Many Afghan families cross into Pakistan through the lawless tribal areas in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). It's a harsh climate, and they have no contacts, no food, and no money, which leaves them wide open to the predations of slavers. Pakistan's tribal areas -- there are seven in the NWFP and several autonomous cities -- are the last vestiges of the British Raj's failure to conquer Afghanistan. A series of agreements ("treaties" is perhaps too strong a word) includes the tribal areas as part of Pakistan, but confirm their complete autonomy from Pakistani law. The political culture, dominated by councils of fiercely independent tribal elders, hasn't really changed in over 600 years -- only now every house has several machine guns, and most have electricity.

Thus, though slavery is technically illegal in Pakistan, the laws are rarely enforced. And since Afghans have no legal status and no papers, there is little to connect them to the protections of the state, even when they serve as slaves in the cities and settled areas. In fact, there is so little work and so much unemployment that many are simply happy to have a job -- no matter how dangerous or poorly paid. Though government figures put the unemployment rate at 37 percent, in reality poor census reporting and a lackluster bureaucracy probably conceal a much higher figure; in the NWFP some experts put joblessness at close to 45 percent. Deep unemployment, combined with poor or no public education, creates a culture of servitude where no one has means and even the relatively well-off will do almost anything for money.

Men often wait for families at the border crossings with ready cash and assistance. In exchange for $80 to $100 given to the families under the guise of a contribution to a young girl's dowry or an advance on a small boy's wages, Afghan families will send their children off with the wealthy Pakistanis -- the sale of children whom families cannot feed is initially concealed under societal semantics and euphemism.

LIKE SO MANY other compounds in Jamrud, the warehouse belonging to Ejaz Arbab (probably not his real name) boasts all the traditional amenities: 30-foot-high walls of baked mud and brick studded with broken glass, machine-gun nests mounted on squat corner towers, murder slits placed above the entrance, and a heavy steel gate complete with surly, machine-gun-toting guards. Little differentiates it from other compounds that line the dusty Khyber Road to Afghanistan. While not all the compounds are owned by criminals or slavers, most are, and Arbab is one of the wealthiest by either standard.

Entering the courtyard of Arbab's compound is like stepping into a desert oasis. Green date palms dot the property, and a fountain of blue azulejos tiles in an intricate arabesque pattern sprays water five feet into the air. It is an unheard of luxury in this desolate, rocky land where the earth cracks in the dry air outside the compound. The building itself is a large white-stucco rectangle, and it has wooden floors.

But aside from his home's quiet ostentation, Arbab presents as a genial old man. His olive-green lunghi (a turban-style headdress favored by the Taliban), his constantly clacking prayer beads, and his white shovel beard, which blends in with his white salwar kameez, also suggest a religious man. But he is a businessman as well, and businessmen sell things. Arbab happens to sell people.

The main structure of Arbab's compound is dominated by a large rectangular room of about 40 by 30 feet. After walking down the steps into the main hall, buyers are guided to spots on a floor covered with dark-red geometrically patterned Afghan carpets. There is a foot-high dais in the middle of the room and a side door at the far end. Pillows serve as seats at low-slung tables dominated by hookahs (water pipes used to smoke tobacco or hashish), pots of green tea, and plates of dates and pistachios.

The guests -- everyone is a buyer -- gradually fill the room. Everyone knows each other, and most of the buyers appear to be related in some way -- small comfort for a white Western journalist in local dress having difficulty with the language. Everyone is asked to leave weapons in the anteroom on the way into the hall, but from the way some sit, it's clear that there are still plenty of weapons in the room by the time the auction begins.

Finally, all the guests have arrived. And as if at some unspoken cue, the conversation stops. Arbab walks up to the dais, acknowledging his more prominent guests on the way. The side door at the other end of the room opens, and a wizened older woman in black brings a small girl up to the stage. She is slight and shy, and couldn't have been more than 14 -- though few Afghans know their real ages. Her skin looks a little red, like it had been scrubbed too vigorously with a loofa, and her hair still looks damp. She's wearing only a kameez -- the knee-length tunic common in this part of the world, usually complemented by a salwar, or a pair of large baggy pants.

Mr. Arbab fingers his prayer beads as he gives a short history of the girl. Not only is she a virgin, he notes, but she is "untouched," meaning that she has not had anal sex with her previous master -- a common practice. The fact that the girl is "untouched," combined with her lighter skin and blue-green eyes, makes her particularly prized.

The bidding starts quickly. About 15 minutes into the bidding, one of the buyers asks for an inspection. The elderly woman removes the girl's tunic, fingers the child's breasts, and then shines a flashlight into her open mouth to show that she has a good set of teeth. Bidding resumes with a certain intensity; some of the men can be seen rubbing themselves.

Of the 15 or so girls sold that evening, only four were "untouched." All were virgins, because, as Arbab said, "I only buy the best." And he makes piles of money doing it. Though his agents will buy the girls for between $80 to $100 at the borders, the price at the auction was considerably higher. The 14-year-old was sold for 165,000 Pakistani rupees, or about $2750. I heard it whispered that the girl was going to Dubai (presumably to become a member of a harem). Others were not so lucky. Another girl, a tall 18-year-old virgin with long black hair and light eyes, was sold to a prostitution ring in Lahore. Though a virgin, she had been "touched," and so sold for $2450. Although men at the auction ostensibly are paying for the right to marry the girls, few -- if any -- do. Most of the girls become prostitutes; the lucky become domestic help.

The case of boys is more straightforward. Since they are seen as a labor commodity, there is less mark-up involved. Most go straight from the borders to the factories. The smallest boys are sold to sheikhs in the United Arab Emirates to be used as camel jockeys. According to Arbab, the smaller boys are favored because they are light and their high-pitched screams make the camels go faster.

ECONOMISTS HAVE argued that cheap labor is good for the economy, and in fact the influx of Afghan workers into Peshawar has turned a once sleepy city into a bustling metropolis with increased property values. Over 70 percent of businesses are owned by Afghans who were wealthy enough to get out before the Taliban took over and to purchase fake Pakistani documents. The prosperous Afghans in Peshawar have no qualms about hiring their fellow countrymen as indentured servants.

Jabbar Nassery, a wealthy moneychanger in the Chowk Yadgar financial district, made over $150,000 last year -- a stratospheric sum for Pakistan. When asked if he had any thoughts about moving to the West, he asks, why? "I have two brothers in England, one in France, and another in Germany," he says. "They work from early morning until late night. They worry about expenses. I have a driver, a watchman, a cook, and a maid. How could I have that in the West?"

When asked if he thinks that that human labor is used efficiently, Nassery says, "These are poor people, and they need money. We have a duty to help them, and so we employ them -- and we help them -- giving them food and medication when they are sick. I gave money once so a daughter could get married."

Nassery brings up an important point. Even in a culture that guarantees a place in heaven for a man who can educate and marry off a daughter, female children are expensive because the bride's family must pay the lion's share of marriage expenses. The traditional three-day wedding feast, dowry, and jewelry combined can beggar well-off families if they have more than two or three girls. Such expenses are usually offered as an excuse when the poor sell their children to men like Arbab.

Usma (also probably not her real name), an Afghan prostitute in Peshawar, said she was 12 when her family sold her to a man. "We were crossing the border [into Pakistan] and had no money to eat. The man gave them $80, so my mother told me to go with Akbar.

"After Akbar found other girls at the border, he put all 17 of us in a truck and took us to Jamrud. I stood on the dais and men offered Arbab dowries for me. Initially I was proud to earn such a high dowry price at Jamrud, but then the man refused to marry me and instead sent me out with his friends." These girls also don't see any of the dowry money given to Mr. Arbab. According to dozens of buyers interviewed, the girls are disposable -- and most don't live to the age of 30. When asked in what way the girls are disposable, the men shrug and smile.

When asked about how she felt, Usma started to cry. "While I was with my first man, Khoram, the whole time I was thinking how much I wished that I was a married woman with my own husband, my own children, and my own house." When asked about the prostitution, her answers were unsurprising: "I did not like it at all. After the first time, I came home and cried and tore my hair -- I hated myself and wished that I would die."

So while life in Pakistan is cheap, the lives of women are cheaper. Because of this attitude, educated and therefore wealthy Pakistani women put off marriage as long as possible. One woman from Punjab, Zanib, joined the Pakistani Air Force in order to delay marriage as long as possible. According to one of her friends, Afsheen, Zanib is ambitious -- a quality not necessarily welcomed in Pakistani women. In order to avoid the possibility of a husband cutting short her career by demanding a housewife, Zanib has resolved not to marry. In Pakistan, this also essentially means that she has embraced celibate chastity as well.

THE CULTURE of women's servitude is reinforced in the NWFP, with its proximity to the more traditional Islamic culture of Afghanistan and the tribal areas where perhaps the most conservative Islamic fundamentalists live. The ethnic Pashtun who live in Pakistan's tribal areas identify more with Afghanistan than Pakistan. As far away as Peshawar, even wealthy, well-connected businessmen speak fondly of their homes in the villages. Zafar Yousaf, a fourth-generation Afghan and prominent banker in Peshawar, sums up his relation to Pakistan succinctly: "First we are Pashtun, then we are Afghans. Pakistani? Perhaps. Pakistan has only existed for the last 50 years." When he speaks of returning to his village, his face cracks into a broad grin -- the primitive conditions there speak to him in ways difficult for a Westerner to understand. And Yousaf lived in London as an investment banker for 10 years.

It was in the tribal areas that the madrassas educated the students who would later become the Taliban. In fact, with the recent lawlessness in Afghanistan since the fall of the fanatical Islamist regime, sympathy for the Taliban runs high. Initially encouraged by the Pakistani intelligence service, the Taliban soon became a force that Pakistan could not control, placing the tribal areas even further from the grasp of the Islamic republic and the secular reforms sought by Musharraf.

And Musharraf has tried to extend his authority. Several attempts by the paramilitary frontier police force to extend Pakistani federal control into the tribal areas over the last six months have met with disaster. Every house in the tribal areas is a fortress. Some even have heavy artillery, and most have field mortars. The people make their own weapons. The factories of the tribal village of Dara Adam Khel are famous for their gunsmiths.

So in the end, General Musharraf has a two-part challenge in his quest to bring democracy to Pakistan. First, he must bring the tribal areas into mainstream Pakistani society and under the rule of law. Once accomplished, no doubt it will be easier to crush the culture of bonded labor and slavery existing in the tribal areas. But this much is also clear: without a firm hand, the peculiar religiosity of the tribal peoples that spawned the Taliban will continue to spill into the rest of Pakistani society, cutting to the core of traditional democratic values and respect for human dignity. As Solon once said, "There can be no democracy where freedom is in peril."

Andrew Bushell reports from Central Asia for a number of publications, including the Economist.

Issue Date: March 15 - 21, 2002