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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 12:20 GMT
Inside the Salang Tunnel
Mouth of the Salang Tunnel
The tunnel's ventilation system does not work
Marcus George

I could see no more than a metre in front of the car.

The lights were on but they made no difference through the cloud of dust and noxious fumes.

The walls of the tunnel were there, nearby, somewhere behind the pitch darkness.

Lorry at Salang Tunnel
A Russian aid convoy was first through the tunnel
And then, suddenly, we stopped. Our path was blocked by a van struggling to mount a large gash in the tarmac.

My heart beat faster thinking about the consequences.

I was in a confined space stuck in the middle of a two kilometre-long tunnel breathing in pure carbon dioxide with my driver inanely grinning at me, enjoying the whole experience.

This was the almighty Salang Tunnel, pride of Afghan engineering, invasion path of the Soviet Army and gateway to the north.

Re-opened

The tunnel, completed in 1964, was re-opened amid much ceremony this week after lying dormant and unused since it was partially destroyed during fighting in 1997 and 1998.

Road to Salang Tunnel
The tunnel cuts the north-south route by 300km
First across the divide came a Russian aid convoy - 23 trucks laden with 70 tonnes of food and other assistance destined for the Afghan capital Kabul.

It was followed closely behind by car loads of traders coming to do business.

The re-opening of the Salang is expected to speed up the international aid effort to Afghanistan, particularly during winter months when the country's most needy populations are inaccessible.

It cuts the alternative journey from Kabul to the north by 300 kilometres, bypassing Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.

Plans to clear thousands of tonnes of debris blocking the road were made just weeks after the Taleban fled Kabul.

Safety fears

The Halo Trust, a British-based demining agency, provided machinery and manpower to blast their way through to the northern side with the collaboration of Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations and development agency ACTED.

Gallery at Salang Tunnel
The tunnel is 2km long
But although this vital north-south link has been restored, maintaining the tunnel is a huge task, stressed Dr Farid, programme manager of the Halo Trust in Afghanistan.

"There is no electricity up there so the ventilation system does not work," he said.

"We put emergency lights through the tunnel and have strongly recommended to the Russians and the Afghan Government that the tunnel needs a lot of maintenance.

"But there is nobody controlling the traffic. A tragedy is just waiting to happen," he said.

See also:

18 Dec 01 | Media reports
Resurrection for Afghan tunnel
21 Jan 02 | South Asia
Donors pledge Afghan aid
20 Jan 02 | South Asia
Aid lifeline for Afghanistan
15 Jan 02 | South Asia
Rebuilding war-torn lives
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