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.