British charity's effort to clear tunnel leads way for aid projects

By Patrick Cockburn
Monday 17 December 2001 01:00

Work has started on the most important aid project in Afghanistan, the reopening of the Salang tunnel, which carries the only good road through the Hindu Kush mountains.

In the next 10 days the Halo Trust, a British charity that specialises in removing mines, will clear the worst debris from inside the 1.7 mile-long tunnel, built by the Russians between 1958 and 1964 and blown up three years ago.

Reconstruction will not be simple. Tom Dibb of Halo said: "The concrete ceiling has collapsed for several hundred metres at each end because anti-Taliban soldiers exploded several aerial bombs above the tunnel to block the entrance and exit."

Opening the tunnel – at 11,000 feet, one of the highest in the world – is vital to Afghanistan's recovery. It is the crucial choke point on the main north-south road that runs from Afghanistan's northern border with Uzbekistan to Kabul. Before it was built, the only direct route through the Hindu Kush, where peaks rise to 15,000 feet, ran over high and dangerous passes.

The desperate need for the Salang to reopen was demonstrated as soon as the Taliban were defeated, when thousands of ordinary Afghans immediately started trampling along a narrow path through the tunnel, clambering over concrete lumps and twisted pieces of steel. Women, small children and even men herding goats stumbled along the path with only small torches to light their way.

It is not only the tunnel that is dangerous. The approach from the north is a steep road with some 80 anti-tank mines on or beside it. Travellers then reach a collapsed overhead gallery, originally designed to protect the road from avalanches. This is the point where people arriving by car and bus have to get out and walk for three miles through the snow before they reach the tunnel entrance.

Guy Willoughby, a director of Halo, said they would have 100 to 150 people working to clear the debris. They cannot use bulldozers because the ventilation system is broken.

Aid experts say the reopening of the Salang tunnel, creating immediate visible benefits for the country, shows how foreign aid should be organised. They say it is vital to improve the lives of ordinary people within three months if they are to foster a climate of political stability.

The disastrous state of the country means that this should be easier to do than it looks. Mounds of rotting garbage stand in the alleys of Kabul, for example. The city council has 48 refuse collection vehicles, but 10 have flat batteries and there is no money to buy new ones. Ten new batteries would bring a 30 per cent improvement to rubbish collection with immediate benefits for public health.

On patches of open ground all over Kabul in the last few days people with wheelbarrows have gathered to take away 50kg bags of grain being distributed by the World Food Programme. The food is needed but has little impact on a city on the brink of utter destitution.

Government employees have not been paid for four or five months. Soldiers at some checkpoints around the city say they are surviving on scraps. Theft by the Taliban as they quit Kabul made a bad situation worse. The electricity company has only one truck and 900 unpaid employees.

Unless they can find the cash to pay state employees, Afghanistan's new authorities are unlikely to succeed in setting up a central government. Public works projects, such as road building, are also needed to provide jobs. War damage is everywhere. Even when the Salang tunnel is reopened, the bridges on the road to the south, all blown up in recent years, will have to be rebuilt.

In some ways it is surprising that anything works in Afghanistan. In fact, the electricity supply is almost always on in Kabul. Unfortunately, the reason is that almost all the city's industry and many of its houses have been destroyed. As a result, demand is so low that part of the power system has been cannibalised to keep the remainder going.

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