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Thursday, November 6, 1997 Published at 08:14 GMT

World: West Asia

Gemstones fund Afghan war

Afghanistan has been involved in war and civil war for the past 17 years. It's an expensive business. But one of the means of financing the war has been the rare precious stone, Lapis Lazuli.

The only pure source of the stone lapis lazuri lies in Sar-i-Sang, an area held by opposition forces fighting the fundamentalist Taliban movement which now controls much of the country.

[ image: A dangerous journey through inhospitable terrain]
A dangerous journey through inhospitable terrain
The mountains where the bright blue precious stone is found is in the most inaccessible part of Afghanistan. Few have visited the 4,000-year-old mines in the past quarter century.

The only route is along appalling roads, through an area infested with robbers. There is no room to camp on the narrow mountain ledges en route. The ground drops away to a river 100ft below.

The miners live in a village in the mountains which is virtually unchanged since the days of the Pharoahs. They live in an all male society believing the presence of women would bring bad luck.

[ image: Miners carry their heavy loads back to their village]
Miners carry their heavy loads back to their village
The climb up the mountain to the mine is difficult and takes several hours. The path has been swept aside in places by landslides. After their nightshift the men stream down to their village each carrying 70 or more kilos of the precious stones.

The overseers pay each man for the amount he has dug out. There are always disputes. The amount of money the miners get is pathetically small. Considering the eventual value of what they produce, these miners are some of the worst paid workers in the entire world. For 12 hours work, in some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions, they get £1.20 ($2) a day.

[ image: The precious lapis]
The precious lapis
After drilling holes in the rockface they plant sticks of explosive. After the explosions the bosses take the big rocks and after that the poor miner get the bits left over. There is no justice.

Once the stones have been excavated it then takes a good three days for the lapis dealers to reach Pakistan. The route, which is also used by emerald and heroin smugglers, can only be travelled on horseback or mule.

There are plenty of buyers for all the commodities across the Pakistani border where the lapis is then graded and cut before being sent on.

[ image:  ]
Until the war in Afghanistan, all these tasks were done inside the Afghan border. Now Pakistan makes the big profits from lapis lazuli.

The troubles in Afghanistan have ensured that the benefits from a precious stone which was mined there before the earliest Egyptian dynasty are now being siphoned off by other people.

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