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Afghanistan's emerald heights

The gem-studded mountains are a pot of gold for anti-Taliban forces

Explosions rock this high mountain valley as puffs of smoke rise above the craggy peaks. Fifteen years ago, the blasts could have come from Soviet jets targeting mujahideen hideouts. Today the quarry is emeralds.

Laboring at the end of claustrophobic tunnels, men use metal bars to sift through the rubble dislodged by their dynamite charges.

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The brilliant green stones they find are filling the war chest of Ahmad Shah Masood, the commander of the last significant resistance to the Taliban. Since its rise to power in the mid '90s, the Taliban militia has forced its strict interpretation of the Koran upon the roughly 90 percent of the country captured so far. And the war continues. At the beginning of July, new fighting erupted between the Taliban and Commander Masood's forces.

The Taliban has financed its campaigns through the multimillion-dollar drug trade, which it largely controls. Meanwhile - the forces loyal to Masood are holed up in a mountainous patch of country, rich only in rocks.

The anti-Taliban forces are rallying against a regime they view as merely a puppet of foreign powers like Pakistan. In a good year, Masood's camp yields up to $60 million from the hundreds of emerald and lapis lazuli mines in the remote northeastern corner of Afghanistan. Vast fortunes are believed to lie in these mountains, where per capita monthly income can usually be counted on two calloused hands.

What drives men to work in these mines is more the hope of striking it rich than patriotic duty. Yet most end up staying for a lifetime.

"We make our living through the emeralds," says Abdul Wara, head of a 25-member extended family. "Once we find something, we eat. And then we start working again."

Mr. Wara, who has been mining these mountains for 20 years, works in a team with three other men. Their tools consist of a few sticks of dynamite, a sledgehammer, two crowbars, and a shovel.

As is typical for the work cycle here, the team took a break after finding a $20,000 gem half a year ago. When their meager shares of the profits -$800 per man -ran out, the miners returned to work.

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Like the other miners here, Wara and his comrades spend five days a week on the mountainside, as the nearest village is a two-hour hike away and they often work late into the night. Sleeping in tents perched among the crags, they are never far from their mines, which dot the sun-beaten mountains like rows of caves.

Despite the hardship, Abdul Kafil says he prefers mining to farming, Afghanistan's dominant occupation. "It's better. It's like a game ... only a really long game. It's up to God if He gives us anything."

The head of an eight-man team, Mr. Kafil works in the valley's largest mine, which he says has yielded more than 20 pounds of emeralds over the years. As he speaks, four men with wheelbarrows come charging out of the cavern, dumping heaps of rock over a nearby precipice.

Anyone can join in the labor, automatically acquiring one share in future returns.

When Kafil's team recently found a $300,000 emerald, he took home a shabby $6,000 cut. With the money, Kafil built a house for his young family. The entrepreneurs who provided tools, dynamite, tents, and other supplies took a significantly bigger cut, up to one- third of the total shares.

Once the emeralds are sold to middlemen, the rough stones travel to Pakistan, East Asia, or the Middle East, where they are then cut and reappraised for sale on the international gem market.

Many of the miners are acutely aware that the brilliant stones they dig from the mountains are worth many times what they earn. Theft is a temptation, despite the watchful eyes of fellow miners that make decampment difficult.

"A lot of people do that -once they find an emerald, they run away. I'd do the same now," says one miner, who claims that he was cheated out of profit from an emerald he discovered. "Next time we find an emerald, we won't let anybody know. Small stones go in our pockets, big stones go in theirs."

Other miners, like Kafil, view mining emeralds as doing their patriotic duty to fund the war against the Taliban. "I started working here as a child - like those kids -looking for little stones," he says, pointing at a boy with a face blackened from the mine.

The 12-year-old makes the two-hour climb from his village every morning. Per day he never makes much more than a dollar, which he dutifully turns over to his father.

"It's like a casino in those mines," says Rashiddudin, Afghanistan's jet-setting emerald merchant and a major shareholder in several mines. "You can put $10,000 into one mine and make $1. Or you can invest $100 and make a million. People work by experience, but not by knowledge of geology."

Rashiddudin (who only goes by one name) says that reliance on chance is only one of many problems.

"We need the proper technology. The drills that miners use are jackhammers for repairing roads," he says. "And a lot of emeralds go lost in the explosions."

Modern exploration technology, which largely eliminates the hit-or-miss method used in Afghanistan, has still not made its way to these high mountains.

Emeralds have been mined here only for the past 30 years. Rashiddudin says that foreign geologists who have visited the region are impressed with the potential for exploration. New mines are opening every year.

For the mujahideen fighting the Taliban, that means a reliable source of income -and a steady supply of weapons -for years to come.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society