Desperate for Cash, Afghans Toil in Mines That Are Deadlier Than Ever

CHINARAK COAL MINE, Afghanistan — Choking on dust, Mir Abdul Hadi emerged from the narrow mine shaft with a sack of coal hanging heavy on his back and his skin stained black. For hours he had hacked away at the coal in the dark tunnel, terrified it might collapse on him, and now he was relieved to step back into sunlight.

Mr. Hadi, a 29-year-old former government soldier, was among thousands who flocked to northern Afghanistan’s notoriously dangerous mines after the Taliban seized power last year — desperate to scrape out a living amid an economy in ruins.

The backbreaking work offers a few dollars a day, just enough to buy bread and tea for his family to survive. But it comes at a steep price: Since he arrived in October, three mines on this mountain have caved in. The latest collapse last month killed 10 miners, all of whom suffocated after being trapped inside a mine shaft for days.

“That night I wanted to leave this job, to never come back to the mines,” Mr. Hadi said. “But then I went home and saw there was nothing to eat.”

For more than six months, Afghanistan has been gripped by a devastating economic crisis that has wiped out incomes, sent food prices soaring and left millions hungry. Now, desperate to make ends meet, many Afghans are going to increasingly drastic lengths to survive.

Families in rural areas have repaid debts with children they cannot afford to feed, selling them to better-off families or local bosses. In the northwestern city of Herat, men have sold their kidneys on the black market. And along the Iranian border, thousands looking for work abroad have endured brutal beatings by security forces.

In the Chinarak mines of Baghlan Province, a mountainous slice of northern Afghanistan, three times as many men have come to work in recent months than before the Taliban takeover, according to mine operators. They are former soldiers and police officers, NGO workers and shopkeepers, among the millions who have lost their incomes in recent months.

For decades, the informal mining operation has been a risky option for impoverished villagers desperate to earn a few dollars a day. Around 200 people have died in the mines since coal was discovered here 50 years ago, according to village elders.

But the mines have become even more deadly since the Taliban seized power, miners say. Unlike the previous government, the Taliban have not supplied engineers to monitor toxic gas, or timber to support tunnels that stretch for hundreds of yards. The result is a deadly combination of less structurally sound mines and inexperienced miners who cannot spot signs of danger.

“The economic situation is forcing everyone here, but they know they could die. It’s more dangerous than ever,” said one miner, Baz Mohammad, 35, who has worked in the mines since he was 15. “If I had some money, I wouldn’t stay here for another second.”

The work at Chinarak begins at dawn, when the taste of smoke from wood-burning stoves hangs heavy in the air and the morning fog paints the foothills in a cloudlike haze. Carrying shovels and pickaxes, miners make their way down the winding path of reddish clay to the coal-filled mountain.

From the base of the mountain, a trail of blackened earth — a sign of coal — zigzags across its face like a treasure map. Strapping on headlamps, the men duck into mine openings scattered across the hillside and crawl through subterranean tunnels that stretch as far as 300 yards.

Sitting on a boulder outside one mine, Zahir Kazimi, 33, said he could barely move his body after his first day at the mines in January. A tailor by trade, Mr. Kazimi went to work in sewing shops at the age of 13 — determined to save up the money to marry a girl he liked. A decade later, he married and opened his own tailor shop. He was happy then, he said.

But after the Taliban seized power, his once steady stream of clients dried up, and soon his savings did, too. So he took his brother’s donkey to the mines and joined the throng of sweaty men with black dust caked into their skin. Twelve hours later, he returned home with his back aching and cursing himself for getting married at all — if he were single, he would not have to earn so much to feed four mouths at home.

If you come here and work, you can get some money to buy food for your family. If not, they will go hungry,” Mr. Kazimi said. “There is no other way to go. We must work.”

Standing outside a mine’s entrance, Mr. Hadi, the former soldier, wiped his hand on his shirt and looked at his calloused palm. His father, a farmer, always chided him to go to school as a child, dreaming that one day his son could become a district governor or a commander. For a while, Mr. Hadi hoped he could, too. At 18, he joined the…

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