Afghan boys work in dangerous mines as Afghanistan prioritizes coal

SAMANGAN (Agencies): Noorullah says he’s 18, but he looks years younger, despite the layer of coal dust on his slender face. Huddled in the darkness of a narrow coal-mining tunnel near the Dan-e-Tor—“Black Mouth”—village in the northern Afghan province of Samangan, he looks far too young to be working deep in a coal mine. Illuminated in the thin beam of his headlight, Noorullah’s profound exhaustion is clear to see.
It’s backbreaking work for someone of any age—Noorullah and his fellow miners spend between 12 and 15 hours a day crouched in these claustrophobic tunnels, chipping away at the coal by hand. In the roughly six-foot-wide tunnel, there isn’t enough room to swing a pickaxe, so the miners use a small iron bar to painstakingly chip away at the thin coal seam. Each miner digs away at the coal for 10 or 15 minutes and then hands off the iron bar to someone else while they catch a breath. Working as a digger earns each young man about 500 Afghanis per day—less than $7. Those who do less-strenuous work, guiding coal-laden donkeys along the twisting paths to the valley floor, earn even less, around $3 per day.
As costs of living continue to rise across the country, even this hard labor is barely enough to sustain them and their families. On April 25, Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar issued a statement outlining a renewed focus on Afghanistan’s domestic energy production, much of which is currently imported. In the statement, Baradar instructed a bevy of ministries and commissions “to generate electricity from coal in industrial parks, large cities and other such areas”.
With the rising demand for Afghan coal both domestically and abroad, the influx of young miners is likely to increase even more. Even before the Taliban came to power in August last year, an increasing number of boys like Noorullah were making their way to the dark and dangerous coal mines of central and northern Afghanistan, desperate for any steady source of income. But as the economic situation has spiraled, the new faces at the mines have gotten younger and younger.
Child labor has been an issue in Afghanistan for decades, but international sanctions have severely exacerbated the issue since the Taliban took power. A recent survey of 1,400 households conducted by Save the Children found that one in five of them had sent a child into the workforce in the six months following the Taliban’s takeover of the country. The same survey found that roughly one in three families had lost all of their household income in the same period, a number that has almost certainly increased in the intervening months.
Faced with the prospect of abject poverty, many families have no option other than sending their children out to earn additional income. Noorullah has worked as a coal miner for only a few weeks, but many of the young men working in the same tunnel have been here for years. Like most of the other boys and young men laboring here, Noorullah is the only income earner for his entire extended family. Noorullah is Hazara — an ethnic minority that has suffered significant persecution in Afghanistan’s recent history. He says that word of mouth within family networks is a significant driver of migration to the mines from other provinces.
“One of my cousins told me that this was a good place to come for reliable work”, he tells VICE World News. “My family owns some land in Ghazni, but my father wasn’t able to grow anything or turn a profit this season because of the droughts. It’s not easy work here, but none of us really have a choice.” However, in mines nearby, it’s clear that economic deprivation does not discriminate — Afghans from every corner of the country and every ethnic background are represented here, all driven by the need to feed their families.
Taxation of coal is a significant revenue source for the Taliban. Outside the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where the coal from Dan-e-Tor is sorted and sold, lines of trucks waiting to pay their tax stretch far outside the city limits. In March, Taliban officials claimed that a single mine in the central Afghan province of Bamiyan generated over 850,000 USD in profit in a six-month period. Months before the government’s announcement, miners in Dan-e-Tor had already witnessed a steady increase in the number of workers arriving. Samangan is one of Afghanistan’s primary coal-producing provinces—from the belly of Dan-e-Tor’s large central valley, small mine entrances can be seen pockmarking the valley sides, and the road along the valley floor is choked with brightly colored transport trucks trailing billowing clouds of coal dust.
Many of the workers trudging along the narrow paths from the village to the mine entrances in Dan-e-Tor are barely in their teens, dwarfed by the battered shovels they carry. Thirteen-year-old Hafizullah sits near a tunnel entrance high up the side of the valley, staring into the middle distance as he waits for his team of donkeys to emerge from the black maw. His young face is at odds with his hardened bearing, which already seems like that of an adult.
Like so many others, Hafizullah says he came to the mines because his family needed all the additional income they could get. “Everyone knows there’s work here”, he says. “My family knows it’s dangerous, but it’s the most money I can earn anywhere right now.” The dangers the workers here take on are both short- and long-term.
At 25, Samiullah is the oldest of the group of 10 working in this particular mine in Dan-e-Tor. He’s been doing this work since he was 15. “I just got married,” he tells VICE World News. “Working here is the only way to pay off all the loans I took out for my wedding. And even without those loans, I’m the only one in my family with a job, so I need to keep earning regardless.” After a decade of mining, Samiullah’s young body is paying the price. A doctor told him recently that he’d developed health problems in his kidneys and lungs. Samiullah says he often struggles to breathe and has a tightness across his chest that’s gotten worse with time. “Almost all of us here have health issues, especially those of us who’ve been working here for a long time.”
He pauses and shrugs as he points a finger toward the shimmering coal dust suspended in the beam of his headlamp. “We all know it’s from the dust and gasses in the tunnels, but there’s not much we can do.” When asked if the mine owner could provide any protective equipment to them, everyone in the tunnel laughs. “If we wanted that stuff, we’d have to buy it ourselves. Look at our clothes and our shoes. We don’t have the money for extra gear,” he says. The conditions inside Dan-e-Tor mines are far from easy. As they reach deeper into the mountain, the tunnels become so low that miners need to walk in a low crouch. When Noorulah and his co-workers turn off their headlights to save on batteries as they rest for a few minutes, the tunnel transforms into a kind of sensory deprivation chamber, with only the occasional cough to indicate that there are other humans nearby. The air inside the tunnels is oppressively hot and humid, and the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide causes the eyes to water. Samiullah says he can’t smell it anymore, but it’s a gas that can be highly toxic with prolonged exposure. Unsurprisingly, many miners also suffer from eye problems as a result.
The tunnels are strangely quiet between the muffled sounds of pickaxes and the occasional bray of a frightened donkey. But every miner knows that the calm is superficial—danger is always close at hand. Aside from the risk of lifelong health issues, tunnel collapses are a regular occurrence when workers prioritize fast mining over personal safety. The wooden beams supporting portions of the tunnel seem precarious at best, and the threat of collapse is ever-present. Rahmatullah, 21, used to work intermittently as a laborer in Kabul, but he chose to return to his home district of Dara-e-Suf in 2020 in search of the higher wages that mining offers. He says that the dangers of the job are always on his mind.
“When there’s a tunnel collapse anywhere in this area, it puts everyone on edge,” he tells VICE World News. “I’m terrified of the idea that this tunnel could collapse and trap me in here, and that fear never goes away, even though I’ve been working here for almost seven years. I wouldn’t be here if there was a less-dangerous job that paid the same wages.” His fears are well-founded. On Feb. 3, a mineshaft in Baghlan province collapsed, killing 10 miners. But economic needs prevail, and the flow of more boys and young men to Dan-e-Tor is a clear sign that the dangers are not enough to dissuade desperate job seekers. For those working in the mines of Dan-e-Tor, the priorities are simple: sustenance and safety for themselves and their families. “If there were other options, we would take them,” Rahmatullah says. “But right now, this is all we have.”