Tuesday, 14 May, 2024

Meeting former Afghan fighters who now hunt for emeralds in Panjshir

After laying down their arms, a number of former soldiers with the Northern Alliance became involved in the only opportunity to make a living in the region: emerald mining.

“When the attack on Panjshir was launched, I was in Kabul. I tried to join the movement, but all the roads were blocked, and I couldn’t go,” Haji Alam (name changed to protect his identity) 58, told TRT World over the phone.

On August 15, the fall of Kabul took everyone by surprise. As Taliban fighters approached the gates of the capital, most thought the Taliban would be kept at bay until a power-sharing deal was brokered. But when President Ashraf Ghani fled, it gave a green signal for the Taliban to take control.

After Kabul, the Taliban marched its troops to attack Panjshir, capturing the surrounding areas and bringing it under a complete blockade. Mobile networks and electricity were down until recently, and food prices have soared.

Panjshir, after almost two decades of quietude, was again one of the last pockets of resistance to the Taliban's complete seizure of Afghanistan. Many people who led a comfortable life since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 were now forced to leave their homes.

The mountainous valley was the stronghold of the Northern Alliance, which successfully resisted the Taliban’s territorial control before the US invasion in 2001. Northern Alliance commanders possessed an ample supply of soldiers that could be mobilised and deployed at any time.

After the US invasion, around 62,326 combatants participated in Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR), submitted their heavy weaponry, and joined a reintegration program that provided basic education and vocational training.

But over the past two decades, in a series of assassinations, most of the commanders were killed. Those alive chose to live in their comfortable villas in Turkey and Dubai. This left many foot soldiers without strong leadership with military skills.

Afghan military personnel unload shells from a Russian tank to be collected by Afghan's New Beginning Programme (ANBP) in Panjshir Valley, about 120 kilometers (74 miles) north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday January 9, 2005.
Afghan military personnel unload shells from a Russian tank to be collected by Afghan’s New Beginning Programme (ANBP) in Panjshir Valley, about 120 kilometers (74 miles) north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday January 9, 2005. (AP)

On September 6, the Taliban captured Bazarak, the provincial capital of Panjshir, and soon announced total victory. However, the National Resistance Front (NRF) fighters regularly posted videos and pictures of their units in different valleys in Panjshir, professing to resist until a government accepted by all was established.

While resistance continues, some foot soldiers who participated in DDR find it hard to grapple with the new reality of Panjshir under Taliban control.

From sharpshooter to mine owner

Shortly after the US invasion, most of the former fighters went back to the mountains not because they had an affinity for hardship, but because they had no skills and sufficient education to find a job.

Alam is one of the many fighters who fought against the Soviet Union and the Taliban in the mid-1990s. At a young age, he had to drop out of school and take up arms to fight.

In early 2019 on a trip to Panjshir, I met him. The dust of laborious mining work was visible in his sunken cheeks, and as we made our way to the mining site, Alam pointed to caves at the sides of the mountain, which sheltered the village people from the Red Army’s aerial bombardments.

He had marked places with names of his comrades whom he had lost through the course of the war. Every time he treks up to the mining site and back to his home, he is reminded of the painful incidents of hunger, aerial bombardment and losing friends.

Alam used to spend most of his life running from mountain to mountain in offensive and defensive moves; now, he has chosen to stay in a single location for a different purpose, to provide a meaningful living for his family.

After voluntarily laying down his arms, he began digging to mine the mountains familiar to him and soon realised that excavating a mountain is an expensive business. He started collecting shares from villagers, hired labourers and bought a diesel-fired drilling machine and dynamite.

“I have been here for the past 15 years. I feel it’s much better than being in the battleground; I can earn a living and can send my children to school. Though it is hard, nothing comes without striving,” he said.

When I met him, he was very optimistic about the possibility of a peaceful Afghanistan, where everyone would enjoy equal rights.

Over the phone, he tells me, “I am no more the fighting man I used to be, but I also want my daughters to study. The work I am doing is for their future. How would I answer on the day of judgement if I deprived my daughters of education and learning? I can’t think of not giving my children an equal chance to be active citizens in Afghanistan.”

Alam collected 48 shares to pay for the expenses which he incurred while excavating for emeralds. One share costs almost $55 per month, and drilling activities cost almost $250 a month.

“Since the fall of Kabul, most of the shareholders cannot pay, and the blockade on Panjshir has added to it because we pay double prices for everything now. Thus, the excavation has almost stopped”.

The emerald deposits are located at the elevation of 7,000-14,300 feet (2,135-4,270 metres) above sea level in mountainous terrain on the eastern side of the Panjshir River. The mountaintops are covered with snow for most of the year.

Most of the combatants who fought against the Soviet Army in the 1980s and later against the Taliban in the 1990s opted to climb the same mountains they once lived in during the brutal air bombing by the Red Army as well as the subsequent Taliban offensives.

The vast treasure of emeralds

Panjshir Mountains possess one of the finest emeralds in the world. Miners from Panjshir and surrounding areas chose to try their luck at finding ways to support their families. There are hundreds of people (the majority of the former fighters) involved in the mining industry in Panjshir, the only economically viable business available in the mountainous terrains.

Digging for fortune comes with great risk. In addition to uncontrolled explosions, miners use diesel-powered hand drills. There are no safety procedures nor clinics around. The lack of oxygen and the existence of different gases pose life-threatening hazards – some miners have become ill, and a few have even died.

A miner from a neighbouring province recalls when his friend set up the dynamite, but could not make it out of the tunnel on time. When uncontrolled dynamite is set to explode, it gives the miner one to two minutes to reach a safe location.

On top of the miners’ technical inability and lack of safety equipment, they have to face the force of nature. Thousands of feet above sea level, mining deposits are susceptible to harsh winters coupled with deadly avalanches. One of the miners recalls a group of miners being swept away by an avalanche a few years back.

Despite all the challenges, some have been excavating in the mountains for almost 17 years.

After repairing his drilling machine, Alam found himself trapped in Kabul — with the highway leading to Panjshir blocked, he decided to let normalcy return. He hoped some settlement would be reached between the Taliban and the NRF.

But when the fight started, “I was so agitated and wanted to return”, he says.

Mahiuddin, in his early 40s, is another former soldier in the mountains. He was a kid when his father died fighting the Russians; later, he joined the resistance against the Taliban.

“You can see Panjshir, unlike any other province, has no agrarian land. What could we have done after laying our arms? We are tired of war and bloodshed, like everyone else would like to have a dignified life. So mining is our way out of misery and poverty,” he said.

After the fall of Panjshir, when the mobile networks became active, I finally was able to call him. “I am still here. The Taliban are down in the district centre, but not in the valley,” he said.

When the resistance began, he joined a local unit, but soon realised how different it was from the last time. He felt the lack of harmony among different commanders. “Some commanders gave up without resistance, but some fought bravely.”

When the resistance forces scattered in different valleys, Mahiuddin also chose to return to his normal life. He has 60 shares in his mines and collects $62 from shareholders to dig tunnels for emeralds.

Though still busy with mining, Taliban presence has brought some challenges to Mahiuddin’s work. “We cannot buy dynamite anymore in the local Bazar, as the Taliban thinks we are aiding the NRF forces.”

“I live most of my life away from my family, although my family lives down in the village, it is very difficult to go every day. So usually I go once a week," he says, adding, “now the Taliban is again in almost total control, I hope they have realised that Afghanistan has changed and people want their rights.”

While there is no evident sign of change in the Taliban’s governance from their earlier reign, it won’t be easy for the Taliban to captain the wrecked ship that is the Afghan government and economy.

Afghanistan’s financial assets are frozen; the financial sector is almost collapsing; unemployment is soaring, and poverty and hunger are rising sharply. Meanwhile, the Taliban are focusing on gaining international recognition and legitimacy, which may take longer than they had imagined.

“If they continue with their harsh behaviour when the country is in a dire situation, people across the country sooner or later will revolt against them,” Alam says.

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