In Afghanistan, villagers and government battle over blame for coal mine collapse

October 8, 2013

Two weeks after this village’s coal mine collapsed, killing 23 men, Sejuddin crept back into the hole in the earth where his son, Merajuddin, had been buried alive. The body had been recovered, but Sejuddin wanted to gather his son’s clothes and helmet — any reminders of his 18-year-old boy, no matter how tattered or charred.

Afghanistan’s mining industry was supposed to lift this remote village from poverty. Instead, the mine disaster has left dozens of families devastated and led to a bitter dispute over who is to blame. The government claims the Taliban blew up the mine. Locals say it collapsed because of government incompetence.

Who killed the miners of Ab­khor­ak? The question haunting this tiny village reflects a bigger problem chipping away at Afghanistan’s democracy: the lack of government credibility more than a decade after the overthrow of the Taliban. Officials are quick to accuse enemy combatants of being responsible for disasters and crime. But while the insurgent threat is serious, corruption and mismanagement often are the real culprits.

The hostility toward the government has implications well beyond Abkhorak. The country’s mining industry is seen as the best hope for an economy that now relies on foreign funds — money that will dry up as the U.S. military withdraws.

Since the collapse in Abkhorak, villagers have essentially shut down the mine that was supposed to be their salvation. Frustrated by what they saw as a coverup, they beat the government engineers at the mine with sticks, according to police.

“We felt we’d lost everything. We were filled with anger,” said Sejuddin, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.

Residents of Abkhorak, in the northern province of Samangan, always knew they were sitting on a wealth of minerals. Coal jutted out of the ground in the village. For years, villagers collected it by the shovelful to heat their homes and fuel makeshift ovens. Then, in 2010, the government sent engineers to build a mine a quarter-mile long and a paved road to connect Abkhorak to the rest of Afghanistan.

It was part of a national mining boom. Government-owned coal mines have sprung up across the country. Contracts for iron-ore and copper exploration have been awarded to Chinese, Canadian and Indian firms. A World Bank report this year called Afghanistan’s mineral resources “large and uniquely undeveloped.”

“Mining and hydrocarbons are Afghanistan’s best hope for achieving self-sustaining economic growth,” Karl Eikenberry, then the U.S. ambassador, said shortly after the Abkhorak mine was established.

Hoping to escape poverty

Sejuddin remembers urging his son to sign up for work at the mine. The men were paid $4 to work a nine-hour shift — more than double the nation’s average pay. Nearly half the village’s men got jobs at the mine.

In a part of the country where insurgent attacks are rare, the biggest challenge to survival in ­Abkhorak is oppressive poverty.

“We felt we’d finally found a way to provide for our family,” said Sejuddin.

On Sept. 14, Sejuddin was working on his one-acre wheat farm. An enormous blast shook the earth. He looked at the time: 1 p.m. His son’s shift had just begun.

He ran to the mine, which had partially collapsed. A fire was raging, and the men who emerged could barely breathe after inhaling toxic gas. Villagers started digging by hand. After three days, they had unearthed 23 dead miners, including Sejuddin’s son. An additional 27 men were injured.

By then, a consensus had emerged among residents: The government engineers had failed them. They had failed to check the sturdiness of the wooden beams that held up the mine, or to check for potentially lethal levels of methane. They had failed to react promptly after the collapse, and they were unable to provide medicine, bandages or oxygen to the gas-poisoned miners pulled from the rubble.

“They didn’t have enough of anything. The wood they used to hold up the mine was too weak,” said Islammudin, a miner who suffered severe burns on half his face.

In Kabul, researchers at Afghan Integrity Watch, an independent watchdog organization, had long argued that the country’s coal mines had done little to prevent the buildup of methane that can result in deadly explosions. The organization found that coal mines like Abkhorak typically lack basic safeguards, such as ventilation or equipment to monitor gas levels.

“They’re not respecting labor laws or safety and health regulations,” said Yama Torabi, Afghan Intregity Watch’s executive director.

Disputed attack

The Ministry of Mines said its employees had checked gas levels and structural safety just hours before the explosion and found no problems. The ministry classified the mine collapse as a Taliban attack.

“It was an easy target for them in an area where they have some influence,” Seddiq Azizi, the ministry’s spokesman, said in an interview.

Ebadullah Mujahed, the district governor of Ruyi Duab, where the mine is located, echoed the central government’s assessment. He noted that a Taliban shootout had recently occurred 50 miles south of Abkhorak. He also asserted that a Taliban leader from the district had long been planning an attack on the village. And he cited intelligence reports that two gunmen were spotted along a ridge above the village the evening before the incident.

Mujahed acknowledged that it was a bad time for a scandal over the government’s mining practices; he was in the midst of lobbying for three new coal mines in his district.

Residents were outraged by the government’s account. There hadn’t been a single insurgent attack on the village since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001. In such a small, insular place, wouldn’t they know if insurgents had arrived?

As Afghanistan’s mining industry has grown, disasters have been common. Eleven men were killed in Baghlan province in 2011 when a mine collapsed. Miners have died in smaller incidents every year — typically killed by falling equipment or gas poisoning. Occasionally, the Taliban does interfere with the industry; in August, gunmen kidnapped five employees of the Ministry of Mines.

The Abkhorak disaster, if it is classified as an accident, would be the deadliest incident of its kind in the country’s history. It comes just as Afghanistan looks to renegotiate its biggest mining contract ever with China, worth about $3 billion over 30 years.

“The Ministry of Mines has never been able to monitor the coal mines properly,” said a former deputy minister, Mohammad Akram Ghias, who resigned in 2010. “This is an attempt — an excuse — to hide their negligence.”

Afghans have grown increasingly angry at what many see as the government’s efforts to blame the Taliban for its own incompetence.

When girls’ schools are shuttered, officials typically say the Taliban is at fault, even if those responsible are actually conservative village elders whom the government has failed to rein in. When kidnappings surge, as they have in Jalalabad and Herat, the Taliban is often blamed for the work of criminal groups. Some officials say Taliban-related insecurity will make it impossible to hold next year’s presidential election, but many Afghans argue that they are simply trying to hold on to power.

Whatever caused the Abkhorak disaster, the evidence is now buried under a mountain of coal and dirt. The district government’s plans to expand mining are on hold.

The miners say they will return to work only after “a real investigation is finished,” Sejuddin said.

Ten days after the mine collapse, Abkhorak was still in mourning. Villagers had built a new cemetery, called Martyr’s Hill, where all 23 miners were buried.

The mine is eerily quiet. Thousands of pounds of coal sit in piles nearby. When the wind blows, it sends a cloud of black dust shooting across the village.

To Sejuddin, one thing is clear about the disaster. “Whether it was the Taliban or the negligence of engineers, the government is to blame,” he said.

Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Afghanistan since 2012. He served previously as an education reporter in Washington, and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
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