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How red Belarusian tractors became ubiquitous in the fields of Pakistan

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

More than a decade ago, the author Marina Lewycka wrote a delightful novel - "A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian." It led our correspondent Diaa Hadid down a rabbit hole. And she brings to you a short history of Belarusian tractors in Pakistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: There's a Pakistani love song that celebrates a pretty woman and the cherry red tractors that are a fixture of rural life here.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: The singer croons about a (non-English language spoken) that he uses to plow a field before he meets his beloved. That (non-English language spoken) is actually from Belarus. It's a country that neighbors Russia, and Belarus has been a global powerhouse of tractor production since Soviet days. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko even gave Russia's Vladimir Putin a tractor for his 70th birthday. Belarus, of course, is allied with Russia in its invasion of neighboring Ukraine. But these tractors reached Pakistan during an earlier quest for empire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan.

HADID: As their war effort bogged down, Soviet forces used Belarusian tractors because they can haul just about anything. The legend of these powerful tractors spread, and farmers in neighboring Pakistan began clamoring for them. So smugglers snuck them in, even bringing spare parts on donkey cart and camelback. More than four decades on, they're a fixture in Pakistan's fields and its culture. Before they hit the road or the field, many are given a uniquely Pakistani makeover.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL TOOL BANGING)

HADID: In roadside stalls in the market town of Mandi Bahauddin, in a rural part of Pakistan's Punjab province, you can see the transformation from tractor to eye-popping art piece.

So I can see a big shiny red tractor that has Belarus emblazoned on the side. There's bright red poles that have been added to the front. There's fluoro green chains that have been attached to the sides, colorful ribbons tied to the gear sticks, which are also wrapped in gold. The windows are being painted with jars filled with peacock feathers. The back has been decked out with multicolored lights. And I can see a laborer on this side is just sploshed in paint. And he is the one making all these really colorful decorations on the tractor.

ABDUL QADEER: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: (Non-English language spoken).

The painter's name is Abdul Qadeer. He's adding even more detail on the tractor's side. The artwork is complicated, but he says his customer's brief is simple.

QADEER: (Through interpreter) The owner told me he wants this tractor to be the most beautiful in town. My customers like to have beautiful things. They like to show off.

HADID: There's lots of showing off. In a neighboring stall, a smithy welds together a giant crown that will adorn the top of another tractor. To see these tractors in action, we head to nearby fields and meet farmhand Pervais Iqbal. He's driving a Belarusian tractor adorned with jangly bells. He invites me in for a ride.

Thank you.

I perch on an old ammo box that serves as an extra seat.

(Non-English language spoken). Ammunition box, eh?

Iqbal pads it with a jacket.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACTOR MOTOR STARTING)

HADID: I don't understand why until he starts plowing up a small field, and we bounce so hard, I cling to a door handle so I'm not flung against the windscreen. Iqbal beams with pride.

PERVAIS IQBAL: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Can the other tractors do this job?

IQBAL: (Through interpreter) This tractor is powerful. No other tractor compares.

HADID: Down the road, another Belarusian tractor is hitched to a trailer. One man drives it into a sugarcane field. Farmhands holler at him to stop once he's positioned at near freshly cut stalks. The men haul the unwieldy, large sugarcane stalks into the trailer to the beat of music blasting from loudspeakers rigged to the tractor.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

HADID: Nearby, landowner Wassim Baig sips chai and watches the men work. He says his Belarusian tractor makes it possible to sell sugarcane, a lucrative cash crop in these parts.

WASSIM BAIG: (Through interpreter) It doesn't get stuck in the mud. You load it up as much as you want, and you can drive it for miles to the sugar refinery.

HADID: So this dressed-up Soviet tractor has turned Baig into a committed capitalist. It's made him rich. And he's not alone.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: We head to a field behind a pokey village where local horse races are on. Landowners flaunt their wealth. The richest spectators sit on woven daybeds and sip chai. They're protected by black-clad men wielding assault rifles. Musicians play tunes around them, hoping for tips. Riders dressed in baggy pants and shirts, crisp waistcoats and turbans trot down a field as a man announces their names on a loudspeaker.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: And the races begin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSES GALLOPING)

HADID: Many of these riders are landowners or their sons, their fortunes built on the backs of those Belarusian tractors, like Chaudry Zahoor. He's 25. His family owns 20 acres of land which they plant with sugarcane harvested with their Belarusian tractor. He boasts that his riding team have won two rounds of races so far. They all wear matching sky blue vests and turbans. Zahoor's horse is also decked out, draped with ornate silver necklaces studded with blue stones and jangly bells wrapped around its neck. So I asked my colleague Abdul Sattar to translate.

Is his tractor as decorated as his horse?

CHAUDRY ZAHOOR: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Even more decorated than the horse.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Mundi Bahauddin, Pakistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.