JAMRUD, Pakistan Children as young as 5 are auctioned off regularly in a warehouse here in Pakistan’s lawless border regions. Most of them are impoverished Afghan refugees bound for lives of servitude or prostitution.
The thriving trade in young humans illustrates the problems that the government of President Pervez Musharraf faces as he tries to turn Pakistan into a modern and tolerant nation.
Here in the mountainous areas along the Afghan border, foreigners travel with armed guards, Pakistani laws are unenforceable and the infamous black markets of Landi Kotal and Jamrud thrive.
With 30-foot-high walls studded with broken glass, machine guns mounted in the corners and armed guards standing behind the gate, Ejaz Arbab’s warehouse in Jamrud looks much like others in the region.
One of the wealthier men in Jamrud, Mr. Arbab has been making a fortune over the past 20 years selling children most of them the sons and daughters of penniless refugees who for years have streamed across the border to escape the warfare in Afghanistan.
Girls are auctioned off in a large rectangular room about 40 feet by 30 feet where intricate Afghan carpets cover the floor and pillows serve as seats for low tables.
Buyers puff on hookahs as the girls, escorted by an elderly woman, walk to a dais in the center of the room dressed only in thin cotton smocks. Before purchase, a buyer has the right to remove the tunic and inspect the girl in front of the crowd.
Dozens of locals say Afghan girls between the ages of 5 and 17 sell for $80 to $100. The price depends on the colors of their eyes and skin; if they are virgins, the price is higher.
Mr. Arbab, an older man with a white shovel beard and a green turban, absently fingers his prayer beads as he calls out prices for the children.
“The selling of children is common among the poor in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Syed Mehmood Asghar, a program manager specializing in child abuse for Save the Children Sweden, based in Peshawar. “It has always been in the culture; the poor do not regard it as slavery.”
The most well-publicized occurrences involve sheikhs from the United Arab Emirates buying young boys for use as jockeys in the camel races in Dubai.
The girls generally are sold into prostitution or, if they are lucky, they may join harems in the Middle East.
But the very celebrity of those cases betrays their rarity and the almost lackadaisical attitude Pakistanis have to the problem.
A prominent banker in Peshawar said that in the capital of one tribal area known as the Mohmand Agency, slavers dig deep holes in the ground to serve as holding pens for the girls.
Children are fed once each day and given water with which to wash before buyers inspect them. The banker said he wanted to buy a girl for himself this year, but his wife would not let him. He said he hopes to buy one next year.
In many cases, semantics conceal the buying and selling of children.
Rather than being directly “sold,” boys are sent to work in carpet factories or as camel jockeys while their families are given advances on their wages.
But this indentured servitude becomes permanent when the boys are forced to assume new debts while abroad. Most families stop receiving money and do not see their boys again.
The families, who generally sell their daughters because they cannot afford to provide dowries, do not hear about the sexual abuse either.
The children have no legal recourse, said Mr. Asghar, who noted that local politicians also profit from the trade. “Even if a girl would testify, who would listen?” he asked.
Usma, an Afghan prostitute, said she was 12 when her family sold her to a man. “We were crossing the border [into Pakistan] and had no money to eat. The man gave them $80, so my mother told me to go with Akbar.
“After Akbar found other girls at the border, he put all 17 of us in a truck and took us to Jamrud. I stood on the dais and men offered Arbab dowries for me.
“Initially I was proud to earn such a high dowry price at Jamrud, but then the man refused to marry me and instead sent me out with his friends.”
Although men at the auction ostensibly are paying for the right to marry the girl, few if any do. Most of the girls become prostitutes; some become domestic help.
The girls never see the dowry money given to Mr. Arbab. According to dozens of buyers interviewed, the girls are disposable and most never live to the age of 30.
When asked about how she felt, Usma started to cry.
“While I was with my first man, Khoram, the whole time I was thinking how much I wished that I was a married woman with my own husband, my own children, and my own house.
“I did not like it at all. After the first time, I came home and cried and tore my hair I hated myself and wished that I would die.”