Afghan Miners Dream of Fortune in Emerald Mountains
KAMAR SAFAID, Afganistan -- An explosion booms across the Afghan mountains, bouncing off jagged ridges and setting a clatter of stones off down a slope. But this is not a Taliban bomb or a NATO strike.
Miners in the peaks above the Panjshir Valley are blowing their way into the rocks, hunting for emeralds that could make them a fortune in one of the world's poorest countries.
"If you're lucky, you could find something that would set you up for the rest of your life," Mohammad Noor, a lean miner with a whispy beard, said at his camp on a ledge above a snowfield in the Hindu Kush mountains.
Hundreds of men like Noor are searching for the green stones locked in seams of rock in the Panjshir Valley northeast of Kabul, the old stronghold of the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban hero Ahmed Shah Masood, a man still widely revered.
Discovered by Russian geologists in the 1970s, the emeralds are found at high elevations above the valley but only on its east side. No one seems to know why.
With four brothers and only a small piece of land to share, Noor began mining 18 years ago. He went off to fight in the war and to work in Kabul but now he's back, dreaming of striking it rich: "That's what all the fuss is about."
Independent operators have hunted the green stones through years of war, first against the Soviets and later the Taliban.
Soviet aircraft prowled the skies hunting Masood and his men in the 1980s. A rusting bomb casing lies half buried in rocks on a path down the mountain.
"Back then it was more difficult, the Russian jets bombed a lot," said miner Karam as he rested over a cup of tea in a hut at the Kamar Safaid mines, a three-hour walk above the nearest village and road.
That was when Karam made his biggest find, a stone that brought many thousands of dollars, a car and house. Times became hard during Taliban rule, when the Islamists besieged the valley but never captured it. Karam had to sell the house and car.
"It all depends on your luck," he says before trudging off to work higher up the mountain.
Afghanistan has rich deposits of gems including lapiz lazuli, rubies and emeralds, but little exploration has been done for decades and war has kept investors away.
The government is trying to control the industry but many rough stones are smuggled to Pakistan and most mining is being done by independent villagers with crude tools.
Trader Mohammad Gull, sitting at a desk laden with stones at his newly opened Kabul gem centre, said Afghan emeralds were top quality. He estimated the business was worth up to $60 million a year.
But Gull said Afghan emeralds were often damaged, especially by the blasting. "They are much better than Colombian emeralds if they're clean and clear," Gull said.
"But 99 percent are damaged," he said, holding up a clear stone laced with tiny flaws.
The miners reject that. They say they know how to place their blasting charges -- they call them bombs -- so the emeralds are not damaged.
Miners usually work in a team of six. A syndicate of 30 or so people supplies them with food, fuel and explosives.
The proceeds are split. A miner might only get a small fraction of the profits but on a big stone, that can be many thousands of dollars.
"I dream about finding the big one," said Mohammad Bakar, a hat pulled down over his ears and scarf wrapped under his chin, as he rested on a rock under a blue sky.
Rows of holes big enough for two or three men to crawl into pockmark the face of an opposite ridge. A tents clings to a mountain-side in the distance where another team is working.
Boys shout as they try to coax braying donkeys laden with supplies ever higher up a crumbing slope.
Sabzuddin, at 15 the youngest member of Noor's team, started out as a donkey driver five years ago. He's not interested in eking out a living as a farmer.
"If you find an emerald it would be better than any job in America," he says.
The work is dangerous. One of Noor's brothers was injured in a blast and later died.
In a cave in the rocks where telltale signs of green have been found, Noor and his men prepare their bombs.
One man uses a pneumatic drill to bore two holes. They pack in dynamite, light a fuse and get clear.
Two blasts shake the mountain and Noor and his men crowd back, bringing down fractured slabs of stone with crowbars.
One man wields a sledgehammer, breaking stones apart. He checks them and tosses them aside. They find nothing.
"I'm a little disappointed but this has happened before," Noor said. "We have to keep going."