Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Ticking Bomb in the North

Fears of a major explosion at a northern Afghan coal mine leaves residents frightened and angry.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
There is an abandoned village at the foot of Black Mountain, in the northern Afghan province of Samangan. It used to be home to workers in the Darra-ye-Suf mines, but now the collapsed walls and roofs of dozens of houses testify that many residents have fled.

They fear explosions from the mines, parts of which are on fire and have been burning for most of the past 20 years.

No one knows exactly how the fire started. Local legend has it that villagers were excavating the mine illegally, and someone brought in a kerosene lamp to light his way. A random spark set the coal alight, and no one has been able to put it out.

Darra-ye-Suf is one of Afghanistan’s largest seams, producing over 60,000 tonnes of coal annually - approximately 15 per cent of the country’s total output. According to surveys conducted decades ago by geologists from the Soviet Union, the mine has reserves of 102 million tonnes of coal.

Darra-ye-Suf is still active, with the Afghan government claiming that the fire poses no danger to workers in the other, “safe” mines.

But residents are not convinced.

“The government keeps saying that this fire is not dangerous,” said Abdullah, who lives in the area. “But they have taken no action to extinguish it, and hundreds of families have left.

“I moved away right at the beginning, because the lives of my family are more important to me than anything else.”

At present, according to provincial officials, there are about 900 miners at Darra-ye-Suf. Residents say that a dozen or so people die every year when tunnels damaged by the ongoing fire collapse.

Noor Mohammad, a miner who has witnessed several deaths, described one incident to IWPR.

“Two years ago, I smelled smoke when I entered the tunnel. I managed to get out, but two of my relatives died when the walls caved in,” he said.

Noor Mohammad suffers from asthma, which he is convinced is a result of the smoke he inhaled during the accident. He said that many people in the area are afflicted with the same problem.

“In previous years there weren’t many opportunities to get treatment, so people died of coughs and asthma. We thought it was tuberculosis, but later we found out it was because they’d breathed the smoke from the coal fire,” he said.

Now, say residents, the danger has increased- they fear that the fire will trigger a massive explosion.

“Over the past year, the level of smoke has risen, and we have heard small explosions from inside the mine,” said local resident Mohammad Ishaq. “This has never happened here before.”

Locals draw on memories of past explosions which killed 140 people over two decades up to 1981 at the Karkar coal mine, in Baghlan province.

They say they are frightened and that if something is not done soon, everyone will leave.

“People are convinced that there’s going to be a big explosion,” said Noor Mohammad. “They think the mountain is just one big bomb.”

Health experts are concerned about the ongoing effects of the fire.

“Constant inhalation of carbon dioxide damages the lungs and causes diseases such as asthma,” said Doctor Ghausuddin Anwar, deputy director of the Department of Public Health in Mazar-e-Sharif. “Over prolonged periods, it can cause death.”

The governor of Samangan, Abdul Haq Shafaq, recently paid a visit to the mine, and told IWPR that he too was gravely concerned.

“There are two aspects that worry me,” he said. “First, if the mine explodes, the entire area will be covered in ash. Secondly, a huge chunk of our national income is burning away.”

However, the governor insisted that locals had not asked for help with evacuation, and few had actually left.

“People have got used to it,” he said.

He has requested assistance from the central government, which has allocated two million US dollars to extinguish the blaze.

Shafaq maintained that all illegal excavation had been curbed.

Khugman Olumi, spokesman for the ministry of mining and manufacturing, confirmed that the government had already allocated the funds. “As soon as we get the money, we will begin work on putting out the fire,” he told IWPR. It will take approximately two years to get the situation under control, he added.

“For the past 20 years there has been no government in this country, and no experts at our ministry,” he said. “That is why no one has tried to put out the fire up until now.”

Since the fire is underground, the ministry has been unable to estimate precisely how much of the mine has been consumed, but Olumi believes the losses are significant.

Still, he downplayed talk of an explosion.

“An explosion is unlikely, because the fire is underground and there’s insufficient oxygen to cause the mine to blow up. Besides, we are also now beginning the work of putting the fire out,” he said.

He added with a smile, “The mine has not exploded in the past 20 years - it will wait a few more years.”

But despite such reassurances, local residents are growing more and more worried.

“When the Karkar mine exploded, many people died,” said Shamsullah, who lives in Samangan. “Who compensated people for their losses? I am afraid that the same thing will happen to us.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

More IWPR's Global Voices