Asia

The dangerous lives of Nato's Pakistani tanker drivers

  • 17 May 2012
  • From the section Asia
Tanker trucks, used to transport fuel to NATO forces in Afghanistan, are seen parked near oil terminals in Pakistan's port city of Karachi on May 15, 2012.

"Forget politics, we're thinking of how to feed ourselves," says Muhammed Baqi, who is in his mid-50s.

"It is hunger and poverty that forces us to do this job and if I die driving a Nato truck, like my nephew Amir, it will be because of my poverty."

Just a few days before Pakistan blocked the Nato supply routes, Amir, who was 30, was driving a Nato oil tanker to the Afghan border.

"Amir got a tyre puncture and was separated from his convoy," says Mr Baqi.

"He called me for advice and I told him to head straight back to the truck stand. But as he drove, gunmen rode alongside him and shot him dead."

Image caption Muhammed Baqi fears that the risks facing him as a Nato tanker driver will be greater than before

Muhammed Baqi points out the bullet holes in Amir's truck, now parked alongside dozens of other Nato oil tankers close to Karachi's port.

Among them is the vehicle he himself drives. It has been sitting idle here for more than six months.

During that time he has not received a salary. In spite of the risks, and what happened to his nephew, he is desperate for the Nato blockade to be lifted to allow him to earn a living.

'Positive step'

All the signs are that Pakistan's government is close to doing just that, following months of diplomatic and financial pressure from America.

It imposed the blockade in November, following a Nato air raid in which 24 Pakistani border troops were killed.

Media captionNato supply trucks have badly damaged Pakistani roads, particularly near Peshawar

Islamabad is now scrabbling to find a way to prevent it looking like a climb-down if it lifts the blockade.

But it is difficult to see what formula can be drawn up that would achieve that.

"This stopping of the Nato supplies was a very positive step," says Naveed Qamar, the head of the Karachi wing of Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD), an extremist group with suspected links to al-Qaeda.

"I think people here appreciated it, but if the government reverses the decision Pakistanis will vent their anger."

When I ask about drivers like Muhammed Baqi, the JuD leader is unequivocal: Nato supplies should not be transported through Pakistan whatever the circumstances.

"It is because of those supplies that Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan are dying, there is no compensation for that."

He says that if the Pakistani government allows the Nato trucks through, people will block the routes.

"We will lie down in front of the trucks and tell them to drive the containers over us if they want to."

He promises it will not be just his group's supporters, but thousands of others that will join them.

'Desperation'

Judging by current levels of anti-Americanism across Pakistani society, some of it undoubtedly whipped up Pakistani officials trying to deflect criticism, Mr Qamar may well be right.

He insists that Jamaat ud Dawa does not condone attacks on convoys of Nato trucks or on their drivers.

But many associated with the organisation have certainly been involved in militancy in the past.

And driver Muhammed Baqi knows what militant groups in Pakistan are capable of.

"We do this dangerous job and we get no security," he says.

Image caption Naveed Qamar says JuD will block the fuel tanker routes if Pakistan ends its Nato blockade

"It is easy to spot which trucks are carrying supplies for Nato troops and we are an easy target."

"But because of desperation, because I have to earn money to feed my children, I have even been forced to try to forget my nephew who was killed."

After the furious public opposition to Pakistani co-operation with Nato, and Washington's refusal to issue an apology for the killing of Pakistani soldiers, Muhammed Baqi's fear is that the risks now are going to be even greater than before.

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