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Thursday, 8 August, 2002, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
Eyewitness: Crumbling Afghan lifeline
The mouth of the Salang Tunnel
Vital repairs on the Salang Tunnel are urgently needed

High in the Hindu Kush mountains, the air is thin at the summit of the Salang Pass, more than 3,000 metres above sea-level.


There's a real risk that someone will stray off the road and set off one of these mines

Tom Dibbs,
Halo Trust
A chill wind whips across the jagged peaks.

As overloaded buses, trucks and tankers struggle up the winding pass, they drive through pillared concrete galleries, designed to protect the road from avalanches.

Finally, the traffic reaches the Salang Tunnel, built by Soviet engineers in the 1960s to give Afghanistan a much-needed north-south road artery and supply route.

Now the tunnel and its approaches are in a critical state of disrepair.

Unlit and water-logged

Both ends of the 2.6-km tunnel were blown up by the forces of the late Ahmed Shah Masood in the 1990s to stop the Taleban advancing northwards.

The Salang Tunnel is still operational for now, but the rubble-strewn southern entrance is a ragged hole cut into the mountainside.

The larger vehicles have to manoeuvre their way in with the utmost care.

Inside, the atmosphere is eerie and fetid. The tunnel is unlit and there is no longer any ventilation system.

The road is water-logged in places and exhaust fumes fill the air, posing a real danger to anyone unfortunate enough to break down.

It is a relief to reach the daylight at the northern end of the tunnel where the original concrete facade - a blue arch - remains intact.

However, the buildings nearby that once housed the tunnel's maintenance system, lie in ruins.

"It's not just the tunnel that poses a problem", said Afghanistan's Minister of Public Works, Abdullah Ali.

"There are many bridges that have been demolished and retaining walls that need to be built. We're trying our best, but we're waiting for the donors and the contractors," he added.

Mine risk

For decades, the dramatic Salang Pass has been a theatre of conflict.


We're trying our best, but we're waiting for the donors and the contractors

Public Works Minister Abdullah Ali
In the 1980s, the Russian forces occupying Afghanistan were repeatedly ambushed by the Mujahideen, while more recently this was a front-line between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance.

A short distance from the summit, de-mining teams are at work, clearing the verges of anti-tank mines.

The mines have been planted within one or two metres of the main road.

"There are a thousand vehicles a day passing up and down here," said Tom Dibbs of the Halo Trust, which is carrying out much of the mine clearance work.

"And there's a real risk that someone will stray off the road and set off one of these mines", he added.

However, progress is slow. The ground is baked rock-hard, making the task of unearthing the mines much more difficult.

Reconstruction challenge

The repairs to the Salang Pass and the tunnel are a priority for Afghanistan's Transitional Administration.

The road to the Salang Tunnel
Mines along the road are a real danger

The government says it needs between $4m and $6m to carry out the work.

This is just one aspect of the multi-billion dollar reconstruction programme that must be implemented for the entire country.

The World Bank has also acknowledged that the work on the Salang Tunnel and the approach roads needs to be undertaken quickly, ideally starting before the onset of winter.

However, it is thought unlikely that the major repairs to this key economic and humanitarian lifeline will begin before next year.


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28 Jul 02 | South Asia
07 Feb 02 | South Asia
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21 Jan 02 | South Asia
18 Dec 01 | Media reports
10 Dec 01 | South Asia
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