Hundreds of Afghans – many needing urgent medical treatment – gathered on Monday near Pakistan’s embassy waiting to hear when the visa section might reopen after it indefinitely shut down its services.
The consular office in Kabul was closed over security reasons after several staff members were harassed by unknown assailants in the Afghan capital, Pakistan’s embassy announced late on Sunday.
The shutdown also highlights the reliance many Afghans have on Pakistan, where they seek the type of medical care that is unavailable or unaffordable in Afghan hospitals.
“I am in a hurry to reach Pakistan as the mother of my seven children is very ill, and I urgently need to take her to Pakistan for treatment,” Abdullah Abded, who travelled from Parwan province north of Kabul, told AFP news agency.
“I feel desperate. I may have to tell my children that their mother may die because we cannot get the visa.”
Pakistan’s healthcare system is derided by critics as chaotic, corrupt, and vastly under-resourced, yet when coming from Afghanistan, it can be a lifeline.
While the war-torn country has many health facilities, these are concentrated in the cities and access is often determined by wealth.
Specialist treatment in Kabul, for instance, can cost double what it would in Pakistan, people outside the embassy said.
“I have a kidney disease and need to go to Pakistan on a regular basis for treatment or my kidneys will fail,” said Nabi Yosufzai, a 26-year-old shopkeeper.
The consulate has closed in the past, usually for short periods. A sign on the consular section’s door written in Pashto on Monday said it had been closed “until further notice”.
On Sunday, Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry summoned the Afghan charge d’affaires to convey concerns about the safety of its diplomats in Kabul.
“The Afghan charge d’affaires was informed that the officers and staff of the embassy of Pakistan were being harassed over the past two days,” it said, adding they were blocked while on the road and embassy vehicles were hit by motorcycles while on their way to the diplomatic mission in Kabul.
Gran Hewad, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Associated Press that authorities will investigate.
“We are in contact with the Pakistan embassy here in Kabul to solve the issue,” he said.
An embassy spokesman said the consular section gets about 2,000 applications daily, and is usually able to process about 1,500 visas within a 24 to 48-hour timeframe.
Apart from medical help, Afghans seek Pakistani visas to visit loved ones, buy and sell goods, and get university educations.
“I feed my big family by selling Afghan almonds or pomegranates in Pakistan in small amounts,” said Kabul trader Nematullah, who goes by one name.
“The profit is hardly enough for my family, but still better than the money you can make here.”
Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been fraught with Afghans blaming Islamabad for any number of woes, including allegedly supporting the Taliban. Pakistan denies it helps the armed group.
Tensions soured further last week amid new clashes along the border in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Kunar. Such incidents happen periodically.
Both sides have accused each other’s troops of cross-border shelling.
The Pakistani foreign ministry has said six Pakistani troops were wounded on October 27-28 in “unprovoked mortar and heavy weapon firing” by Afghan soldiers.
Kunar Deputy Governor Gul Mohammad Bidar said there had been no new shelling since last week.
He said two women were killed and 11 other civilians were wounded in Pakistani rocket fire during the exchanges.
Pakistani consular services remained open in Herat, Jalalabad, and Mazar-i-Sharif.