As The Taliban seals off Afghanistan, this Pakistani crossing is one of its last exits

By Middle East correspondent Tom Joyner in Torkham, Pakistan
Rohulla Sediqi's wife and son have made it out of Afghanistan and are now en route to Australia.  (ABC News: Tom Joyner)

As Rohulla Sediqi and his wife and son emerged from a tunnel and squinted into the sun, they felt the tension slightly lift from their shoulders for the first time in a month.

After weeks of watching the Taliban advance on Kabul, days making the dangerous trip to the eastern border, and then hours spent in a small Pakistani immigration room, the family had stepped out into a unfamiliar world.

Dragging suitcases, they were swarmed by porters and taxi drivers, having just navigated the treacherous Torkham crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For decades, it has been a portal for traders crossing in both directions. But for Mr Sediqi, a former Afghan special forces soldier who had been granted an Australian humanitarian visa, once they had crossed, there was no going back.

Rohulla Sediqi (centre) worked for the Afghan special forces, making him a target, so Australia has granted him a visa.  (ABC News: Tom Joyner)

"Lots of my family is still in Afghanistan. They're all in danger, but we don't have any choice," he said.

As thousands flee, a handful head into Afghanistan

Pakistan already hosts 1.4 million Afghan refugees, though many more have likely slipped into the country and live under the radar, facing discrimination and limited opportunities to earn a living.

While thousands of Australian visa holders have been evacuated from Afghanistan by air, others have had to make the dangerous border crossing on foot.  (ABC News: Tom Joyner)

The United Nations predicts up to 500,000 Afghans will flee their homeland by the end of the year, with thousands having already made the journey across the border into Pakistan since the Taliban takeover of Kabul in mid-August. 

That includes many who could not make their way onto evacuation flights from the city's airport and instead made the perilous trip past Taliban checkpoints to the crossings at Torkham or Chaman, which is further south.

Afghans must make their case to cross into Pakistani territory at the border immigration office.  (ABC News: Tom Joyner)

Although the majority of traffic has been from Afghanistan into Pakistan, some people have made the journey in the opposite direction.

"Now I see the Taliban is back, I am happy with an Islamic government," said one man dressed in a dark green shalwar kameez, a traditional Pakistani garment, as he wheeled a cart with his son and belongings towards the Afghanistan side.

Not everyone makes it across 

The crossing itself is little more than a muddy strip of land guarded by Taliban fighters on one side and Pakistani soldiers on the other, each separated by only a couple of metres.

The Taliban is guarding almost every inch of its territory along its border with Pakistan.  (ABC News: Tom Joyner )

During the day, with the Sun at its zenith in the sky and the temperatures reaching into the high 30s, the guards from each side remain alert, occasionally making conversation in Urdu, Pakistan's national language.

Above the crossing, Taliban flags flutter in the breeze as a crowd of Afghans wait to have their papers checked to be allowed to enter a fenced corridor funnelling them to a Pakistani processing room.

Among those making the crossing, there is anguish and confusion.

A boy, seemingly without parents or family, clutched his belongings and cowered in tears at the gate to the corridor as Afghans pushed past him.

An unaccompanied boy cries at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  (ABC News: Tom Joyner )

Ambulance after ambulance arrived at the crossing, ferrying Afghans seeking medical treatment across the border, according to the Taliban guards.

'The Taliban say they won't disturb anybody'

Holding a Kalashnikov gun and wearing military-style fatigues, a 33-year-old Taliban fighter, who gave his name as Zafarullah, said he had previously worked as a school teacher in Kandahar and trained to be a nurse.

Despite growing evidence to the contrary, he said he believed the Taliban had progressed since they were last in power, particularly in their treatment of women.

"The Taliban are not like they were 20 years ago," he said emphatically.

Anyone without the right paperwork is rejected by Pakistani officials and sent back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.  (ABC News: Tom Joyner )

Another man who identified himself only as Amadi echoed Zafarullah's point, suggesting international concerns over the Taliban's brutal rule were overblown.

Afghans are not fleeing "because they have a problem with the Taliban", he said. 

"Because the Taliban say they won't disturb anybody."

Even though Amadi said the Taliban were less deadly than they were 20 years ago, he still made the decision to leave the country. 

Those who make it hope for a better future  

The last month since the Taliban's resurgence has also created delays in regular logistics and trade between the two countries.

Hundreds of trucks, some laden with goods, some empty, queued for kilometres along the Khyber Pass, the mountainous route leading up to the Torkham crossing on the Pakistani side.

Trucks delivering goods to Afghanistan are caught at the border.  (ABC News: Tom Joyner)

Each painted in bright colours and some bearing Afghan plates, their drivers slept on mats in the shade of their chassis or smoked cigarettes plaintively as they waited to be processed and allowed through. 

For Mr Sediqi, the former Afghan special forces soldier, the danger to many of his countrymen who remain in Afghanistan is unambiguous.

Many others in the military were arrested by the Taliban and had their houses searched, he said. 

A civil engineer by training, Mr Sediqi is eager to begin his new life in Australia.

Pakistan's government is expecting hundreds of thousands of refugees from Afghanistan to cross into its territory seeking help.  (ABC News: Tom Joyner)

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