The miners take turns chopping the coalface. All around us a jury-rigged jumble of tree trunks is wedged against the tunnel’s ceiling, our only protection from being crushed by the five hundred meters of rock between here and the floor of the northern Afghan desert. My claustrophobia mounts with every chunk of coal that dings off my plastic helmet. One miner crouches in the access shaft and shovels coal into an iron railcar. My headlamp catches his face, and I see his teeth are flecked with black. His wiry muscles are straining with the effort, but he works fast. The afternoon shift divides a two-dollar bonus for every tonne of coal they haul. The crew is a half-hour into the afternoon shift, and they’re already filthy. Sweat mixed with coal dust trickles in rivulets down their bare backs. Superfine particles of coal swirl through the beams of their lamps. No one wears a mask; everyone breathes the black mist. The miners work down here, eight hours a day, for next to nothing—about a hundred dollars a month. And the statistics show they’ll spend ten percent of that income on petty bribes to the Afghan government. The whole of the Karkara coalmine runs on a budget of only four hundred thousand dollars a year, less than a sixth of what director Abdel Munir says he needs to hire a full complement of workers and to bring the mine up to international safety standards.
more from Elliott D. Woods at VQR here.