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 kilometres 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.

Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan, first during the Soviet invasion of their country and, later, during the American-led invasion, are often vilified as either economic burdens or as security threats. But in parts of Balochistan they have quietly transformed the province's agriculture sector through their skills and sheer hard work. Could Balochistan and Pakistan embrace them and learn from them?

'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 (PDPA) overthrew President Mohammed Daoud Khan, who was killed along with his family members and some loyalists. The PDPA 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.'


Afghan refugees used their farming skills from their hometowns in Helmand province to cultivate swatches of barren land in western Balochistan | Photo (top and below) by writer

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...

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