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Kids smuggle food for cents along war border

By Sara Sidner, CNN
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Afghanistan's young smugglers
  • Hundreds of kids carry or smuggle items over the Afghan-Pakistan border
  • That border has seen two suicide blasts in three months
  • A group trying to educate the children has been threatened by the Taliban
  • The children are used for cheap labor and some of them live in caves

Torkham, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Sabar Mina is cloaked in a light green shawl tinged with dirt. She is holding an empty flour sack that she plans on filling with firewood.

Her eyes are soft and kind, but they bear the signs of exhaustion. There's a reason for that. Instead of going to school, the eight-year-old walks an hour to work.

All day long Sabar takes items back and forth between two of the most dangerous countries in the world, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Normally she smuggles flour from the Pakistan side where she is from. Pakistan has a ban on exporting food items to Afghanistan because of a spike in food prices, so flour is a hot commodity right now.

Once over the border Sabar gathers and carries firewood to take back from Afghanistan. Her job is hard and sometimes dangerous.

"When we bring the flour the Pakistani police stop us and they hit us, beat us," she said.

But that is nothing compared to one of the other dangers of the job. Sabar was working the border with her younger sister when a suicide bomber blew himself up killing several people. It was the second terror attack in three months on this border.

"When the bomb exploded I was on the Afghanistan side with my sister." She said: "We were crying and then we ran away to the Pakistan side."

But it hasn't stopped her or her sister from working. There are hundreds of children just like them. One charitable organization there estimates 300 children per day work the border at Torkham.

Some like Sabar carry whatever their small frames can carry, often hoisting it on their heads or backs.

Those with wheelbarrows push piles of scrap metal, square cans of oil or luggage. Women, children and the elderly can hitch a ride as long as the small driver has the strength to push them and as long as they are paying customers.

"If someone gives [it to] us, we will bring it for him," Hazrat Ali said. He is small, but tough. He works like a man all day long but he is just a boy of nine-years-old.

Sometimes he gets frustrated when he can't carry everything. "I need more power to do this. I am not strong enough," Ali said in a forceful tone fit for a man.

Gallery: Afghanistan's border children

Tens of thousands of adults three times his size walk across the border everyday but businessmen rely on children like Ali because the border police generally let the youngsters come and go without much hassle and because they are cheap labor.

Most of the children tell us they are paid about 20 cents per trip, sometimes less.

UNICEF helps support organizations set up to help these kids at the border. The aid workers know they cannot just demand all the children stop working and go to school.

Some of the children live with their families in caves. Every single penny they make makes a difference in the family budget. So aid workers make deals with families, community elders and religious leaders to allow the children to drop into education centers for part of the day, and they also get immunizations that will help keep them healthy.

There is also a loan program. Families can take a loan with no interest to start a business. If the family takes the loan they must agree to take their child out of work and put him or her into school full time.

So far, the group says more than 300 children have been placed in state schools. But it has not been an easy task.

The aid workers did not want to be identified or have their organization identified because of a death threat from the local Taliban. The Taliban accused the group of going against Islamic law. But a deal has been struck in which the Taliban is informed of what the organization is up to.

Meantime, children as young as five continue their trek back and forth through the checkpoints unable to attend classes because their parents just can't afford to let them.

As they work we ask the children what they would do if they didn't have to do this for their family's sake.

Sabar thinks for a moment. "I want to have an easy job. A job where nobody hits us or hurts us."

Hazrat Ali has other aspirations. "I want to be an engineer or a teacher," he said.

But when asked how he would do it since he can't go to school, he replied quickly in a matter-of-fact tone, "I will grow up doing this job. I would like to go to school. I am helpless. I have to do this work."