For four years, the most direct route connecting Kabul with Afghanistan's key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif has been closed due to the dynamiting of the Salang Tunnel. But now, as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the tunnel is due to open within a few weeks, thanks to the efforts of a British non-governmental organization (NGO) and Russian engineers.
Salang Tunnel, Afghanistan; 28 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- the Salang Tunnel is about four hours by car north of Kabul, at the top of a narrow mountain pass which this time of year is blanketed by snow.
Originally, the tunnel, which is several kilometers long, was built to allow cars and trucks to pass through the mountain range and continue down the other side another four hours to Mazar-i-Sharif. But for four years, the tunnel has been closed to vehicles, forcing any traffic between the cities to take much longer alternate routes requiring not eight hours but 24 hours to drive.
The entrance to the Salang Tunnel was deliberately dynamited shut in 1997 by Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. The goal was to cut off Taliban troops then trying to flee down the highway to Kabul following a major setback in Mazar-i-Sharif. The sealing-off of the entrance also secured the strategic tunnel once and for all against capture by the Taliban, something that the militia had several times sought to do.
At the time of the tunnel's closure, the effect on traffic was minimal. The loss of the fastest link between Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif hardly mattered because continuous fighting made most of the highway unusable. But today, the loss of the Salang Tunnel is being keenly felt by both businesses and aid groups that hope to use Afghanistan's new peace to begin rebuilding the economy.
Now, a British NGO and Russian engineers are hard at work trying to reopen the tunnel for vehicles. The NGO, Halo Trust, is a de-mining organization that is making use of its heavy bulldozers to clear the rubble of the dynamited tunnel entrance from the highway. As it does so, a team of Russian engineers -- working independently of the NGO -- is restoring the tunnel's lighting and ventilation systems. The workers say that if all continues according to plan, the tunnel could open to some vehicles in the next 10 days and be in routine use by 1 February.
The Halo Trust's foreman at the site is Atiqullah. He recently told our correspondent that the work of clearing the rubble is some 65 percent complete. The job is a difficult one because the explosion at the entrance caused the lattice of steel girders that supported the ceiling to collapse much of the way down the tunnel's length. "We started 14 days ago," he said, "after the Halo Trust took on the task of cleaning up the Salang Tunnel. It's 14 days we've been at work here now, and we've cleared about 175 meters of the south part of the Salang Tunnel and our work is continuing normally. For now we are using bulldozers [to do the work]."
Already, the team of Russian engineers also working at the site has hung a string of electric bulbs at wide intervals down the tunnel, creating an eerie, faint light inside. The engineers said they hope to install a full lighting and ventilation system once the clearing of the rubble is completed. Any work to replace the tunnel's ceiling is, for now, being indefinitely postponed as the crews concentrate on reopening the tunnel as quickly as possible.
The unblocking of the entrance has created a busy stream of pedestrian traffic, which moves through the tunnel even as a bulldozer does its work. The pedestrians arrive by vans and taxi from Kabul, and are met by an army of boys eager to act as porters. The boys sling packages over their backs with ropes and lead the travelers on a curious safari through the darkness.
Inside the tunnel, the light is so dim and the dust from the bulldozers so thick that most pedestrians carry cheap flashlights. But the flashlights, which are sold by vendors at the tunnel entrance, are of too poor a quality to give off more than the weakest glow. By the end of the 30 minutes it takes to pick one's way through the tunnel, most of the flashlights have gone out.
Within the gloom, walking means stopping every few paces to step over another fallen ceiling girder, which is knee-high. All kinds of strange things suddenly loom into sight. At one moment, a man appears herding eight sheep over the girders on their way to a market on the Kabul side. The sheep look startled but resourceful, as they jump the girders at regular intervals. Then come two men carrying a figure wrapped in blankets on a stretcher, but there is no time to learn if the figure is injured or sick or merely an elderly person being carried as conveniently as possible. The foot traffic is continuous, stumbling, and hurried, as people traveling in both directions try to reach the other end.
The travelers arriving from Kabul, upon reaching the northern end of the tunnel, then pick up another taxi or van to continue to Mazar-i-Sharif. Some of those making the journey say they are refugees from the north who have been living in Pakistan or Kabul and who now want to return home.
One of the returning refugees is Sardar Ali, a farmer in his twenties. Despite the cold, he, like his brother, is dressed only in a light parka with a woolen shawl over his shoulders. His only concession to the snow is a pair of leather driving gloves with stylish holes over the knuckles and no fingers.
Ali says he has been a refugee in Pakistan for a long time -- he hasn't calculated precisely how long -- where he lived day to day on what he could occasionally earn as a laborer. He says he and his brother now want to see what has happened to their house.
"We came via Kabul. We want to go to the north because our province and home district [are there]," Ali says. "We're going there to see the area and the state of our home. We haven't seen it for a long time. We want to live there."
The workers clearing the rubble from the tunnel do not try to stop the flow of people but simply work within it. Atiqullah of Halo Trust says he estimates some 300 people pass through the tunnel each day and the number is increasing. The taxis and vans delivering and picking up travelers at the southern entrance has grown so thick that a traffic policeman has recently been stationed there to keep order among them.