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Times, The (London, England)

October 19, 2004
Section: Overseas news
Page: 35

Afghan miners toil on in the pits of death
Author: Anthony Loyd

Article Text:

An industry of lost lives is seeking new wealth, writes Anthony Loyd in Pul-i Khumri.

THE miners' farewell to daylight was brief as the 20-year-old dolly tilted over the edge of the shaft and began its descent, winched down into the darkness at a 65-degree angle.

No one said much. In the late summer the winch cable at Pit No 3 in the Karkar coal mine in Afghanistan had broken, hurtling two men to their deaths in this same dolly. Certainly, no one mentioned that there was already a fire burning through a tunnel connecting the galleries below.

"I say to my son, 'Whatever you do, never work down a mine'," said Muhammad Mosum, a miner stripped to the waist and black from head to toe. "I say, 'Go to school, study, do what it takes, whatever it takes, but don't come under the mountains with me'."

The most dangerous of Afghanistan's civilian professions, the mining industry is in a state of disrepair, sending its workforce underground into appalling conditions with only the most rudimentary equipment and no communications with the surface.

In recent history Pit No 3 has claimed more than its share of men through gas, fire, and tunnel collapse. Two huge explosions had previously taken more than 200 lives. And today there were to be two more casualties before the morning shift had finished.

The industry seems to be beyond repair. Yet the Government is now waking up to the potential of the country's natural wealth as it seeks to rebuild the economy.

"We know the location of only 10 per cent of our mineral resources," said Ibrahim Adel, an engineer and the president of the Mines Affairs Department. "There has never been an accurate survey in our history. Geologically our country is similar to Turkmenistan. We see no reason why it should not have the same resources. We are alone in the region in not knowing what we are sitting on."

Next month, British and American geological survey teams are linking up with Afghan counterparts to begin a ten-year survey exploring the country, already known to be rich in real, precious and base metals, oil, coal and gas and precious stones. Russia's limited prewar survey discovered 120 billion cubic metres of gas in northern Afghanistan, as well as 12 million tonnes of oil, 11 million tonnes of copper and 125 million tonnes of coal.

The Afghan Government, backed by loans from the World Bank, is working on drafts for two new Bills known as the mineral and hydrocarbon laws. Intended to be passed by December, they aim to take existing mines -many of which are controlled by warlords -under government jurisdiction and have them developed enough to attract foreign investment.

Seven coalmines are held by local commanders, who, in theory at least, pay only a nominal 550 Afghanis (Pounds 7.50) per tonne of illegally mined coal to the Government. Not one emerald mine is controlled by Kabul, and the largest lapis lazuli mine, in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, whose semi-precious stones were being imported into Egypt in the 4th millennium BC, is held by a coalition of Mujahidin leaders.

The challenges of getting the industry re-equipped are huge.

Once among the pride of Afghanistan's 11 coal mines, Karkar employed a thousand miners and was a thriving industrial complex. Together with three other principal mines, all in the north near the town of Pul-i-Khumri, it could lift more than 200,000 tonnes of coal a year to the surface. Czechoslovak engineers oversaw its work, equipping it with the latest Eastern bloc technology.

Now though, after the demise of communism and years of conflict, the pithead is a graveyard of rusting metal: generators, winches and drilling equipment are abandoned in a junkheap around the shaft. The Czechoslovaks are long gone and so is most of the workforce. Only 160 miners remain, working in abominable conditions far below ground, chipping the coal face with pickaxes and lifting barely 30,000 tonnes of coal a year.

At the coal face last Thursday, a five-minute dolly ride from the surface, miners repaired the twisted metal and buckling timbers of the gallery walls with a mixture of wood, straw and mud, while a 52-year-old man, Taki, swung his pick at the coal. It was hot and dust filled the narrow confines of the gallery, little more than 1.5m (5ft) high in places. Each of Taki's blows dislodged debris which fell from the ceiling in an unnerving patter on to the men's helmets.

Later that morning, safe on the surface, we watched two men, gassed by monoxide fumes, pulled out into the daylight where they lay choking on the ground. "Maybe they'll die, maybe not," said Anargul, a miner, as the men were injected with glucose and vitamin C, the only treatment available. "I've seen it so many times before. They were trying to put out the fire so we could all get back to work and earn our money. They hung around too long."

"Look, there goes another one," he pointed at another miner walking determinedly back to the shaft to wrestle with the fire. "I bet he'll get in next, and some poor guy will have to pull him out on his back, Afghan-style. What a life."

(c) Times Newspapers Limited 2004
Record Number: 921944232

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