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At the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on March 20
At the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on March 20
Mudassar Shah

PESHAWAR Ayesha Rahmat, a 31-year-old mother of five, lives in a small, two-room house with an open kitchen in this northern Pakistani city. The smell of the bathroom cuts through the air.

Ayesha has four daughters and a son, but her husband of more than 20 years, Rahmat Khan, is gone — Ayesha says his absence has left her in a desperate situation.

"I have stopped taking my medicine as I don't have money to buy it," Ayesha said. "My children have only eaten one meal a day for the last month. We have not paid utility bills. The owner of the house has asked us to vacate the house next month because we haven't been able to pay rent for the last few months."

Ayesha's husband Rahmat lived in Pakistan his entire life. He was born in the country after his parents fled Afghanistan during the Russian war of the 1970s. But two months ago, he was forcefully repatriated to Afghanistan.

I was asked to quit my studies in grade nine because my father is Afghan.

Even though Rahmat married a Pakistani woman and their children were born and raised in Pakistan, Ayesha says the family has limited rights.

"Our country's laws are so cruel toward women," she cried. "I am a Pakistani citizen, but I can't get citizenship for my Afghan husband, who is the sole breadwinner for my family."

Their 14-year-old daughter, Naznin, says she now has to stay home all day, unable to continue her studies. "I was asked to quit my studies in grade nine because my father is Afghan," she said.

"I was born in Pakistan, but that doesn't qualify me for a Pakistani identity card. My mother is a Pakistani national, but even so, I'm not allowed to continue my studies in Pakistani schools. It was my dream to be a doctor. But that dream has been shattered because of clashes between the two countries, and their strict policies," she said.

Afghan nationals wait to cross the border — Photo: Sidique/Xinhua/ZUMA

Until Feb. 27, people from both countries could cross the Afghan-Pakistan border without passports or visas. Many took advantage of that freedom, fleeing war in Afghanistan.

There are about 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, and another million who are undocumented, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Thousands of Afghans have married Pakistanis.

Rafi Ullah, an Afghan truck driver, recently married a Pakistani woman. They have been stranded at the border for a week, trying to cross into Afghanistan, but she does not have a passport.

Law enforcement agencies have started "search and strike" operations in areas where Afghan refugees live, tracking down Afghans and forcibly deporting them.

A 2,500-kilometer-long border divides Pakistan and Afghanistan. People on both sides share the same language, religion and culture, and the countries have long had cordial relations.

But the situation quickly deteriorated after a terrorist attack in Pakistan in December 2014. Afghan militants were blamed for the attack, and Pakistan temporarily closed the border. Since then, there has been a growing number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, prompting the government to abolish visa-free travel.

Law enforcement agencies have started "search and strike" operations in areas where Afghan refugees live, tracking down Afghans and forcibly deporting them.

Late last year dozens of Pakistani women married to Afghan men took to the streets to demand that their husbands be allowed to stay. But many are left with no way to make a living and no sign of when their families might be reunited.

At Ayesha's house, her husband is on the phone from Kabul. He tells her he plans to take a second wife, after just two months apart.

"My husband has decided to marry in Afghanistan," she tells me. "I noticed that his voice has changed when he talks to me. He says he needs someone to look after him there, but I can't ask for the same thing. It's taboo. I am getting punished for a sin I didn't commit."

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