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 Teenager Films Afghan Child Labor

The Wall Street Journal
By Dion Nissenbaum

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School Documentary Project Seeks to Illuminate Open Secret: Young Boys atWork in Remote Coal Mines


A video shot by an 18-year-old Afghan in the claustrophobic passages of a coal mine casts new light on one of Afghanistan's most disturbing challenges.

Children as young as 10 toil in illegal mines, often for 12 hours a day, activists say. Afghan officials agree the problem is stubborn despite recent efforts. The boys represent a thorny obstacle to the nation's push to transform its antiquated mining industry into a modern economic engine.

Their plight is receiving new attention from 18-year-old Fardeen Barakzai. With the backing of the nonprofit school in Kabul where he works, Mr. Barakzai said he traveled through Taliban territory in Bamiyan province to document the conditions of child laborers at an unlicensed coal mine. His film shows young boys coated in coal dust that blotches their skin and stains their teeth.

Child labor "is a major, major problem in Afghanistan," said Hervé Berger, head of the United Nations' International Labor Organization in Afghanistan.

"Kabul children play, go to school," Mr. Barakzai said. "But there, the children are so dirty, the work is not good. I wanted to show Kabul and all of Afghanistan that this is a big problem for all children."

The specific assertions of people interviewed in Mr. Barakzai's video couldn't be independently verified. But the driver and the teacher who accompanied Mr. Barakzai on his journey confirmed details of his story, as well as the location of the unlicensed mine.

"I saw some children working there loading and unloading donkeys," said Khalilullah, the driver. "All the people working there are extremely poor and don't have any other job to feed their families except working in the mines."

By Afghan government estimates, as many as a third of the nation's children—more than 4 million—take part in some sort of work, from picking fruit to mining coal. U.N. officials estimate about 18% of Afghan children work—1.4 million between the ages of 6 and 15.

No one knows how many boys work in the mines. While the government has enacted laws to curb child labor, the rules have so far done little to curtail the problem. "Because there are no resources, we are not able to enforce the laws," said Khair Mohammad Niru, director general of labor regulations at the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled.

A 2010 report by the Bamiyan provincial Human Rights Commission, an independent group, showed that 212 children between ages 12 and 18 were working in two unlicensed mines, including the one in the video, said Abdul Ahad Farzaam, the commission's director. "Our investigation indicates those children were working there even during the night," he said. "The environment isn't suitable for children at all."

Ahmad Javeed Ahwar, youth program coordinator in Afghanistan for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German-based foundation that earlier this year released a study about child labor in Afghanistan, said that child exploitation "is not a matter of Bamiyan or Kabul, it's a matter of all Afghanistan."

The future of Bamiyan's mines is important for Afghanistan. The government awarded a Chinese consortium—the same group that won the rights to operate a $3.5 billion copper mine near Kabul—the license to mine coal there, and the area will soon be turned over to it.

China Metallurgical Group, the Chinese state-run company slated to take control of the coal deposits, said it had no idea children were used to mine coal in the area. It said it will follow Afghan law to ensure children don't work in its mines.

Afghan officials also say they are aware of the country's unlicensed mines, but added that the government had cracked down on sites. Abdul Rehman Shahid, a member of parliament from Bamiyan Province, couldn't confirm whether children worked in those mines, but added that the government recently enforced a ban on transporting coal there.

Afghan mining minister Wahidullah Shahrani said in an interview that he couldn't be sure if the mine filmed by Mr. Barakzai is still operating. "It's very disturbing," he said. "These are the sad realities."

For Mr. Barakzai, the stories of child miners hit home. The oldest son of a disabled father, Mr. Barakzai was sent into the streets of Kabul at age five to make money for his family.

When he was eight, Mr. Barakzai became one of the first students of the Afghanistan Educational Children's Circus/Mobile Mini Circus for Afghanistan, a Danish-run school that seeks to use theater and circus arts to teach children.. He now helps run the school's video projects.

"Children are the best to tell the problems of Afghanistan," said Berit Muhlhausen, co-director of the school, which is funded in part by the Danish government.

Last month, the school's directors agreed to work on a child-labor radio project with the International Labor Organization. The directors asked Mr. Barakzai if he would look into child labor in the coal mines.

Mr. Barakzai says he was determined to do more than routine interviews in the safety of the capital. He persuaded two teachers from the school to take him on the four-hour trek. from the capital to the mines.

"I told him the district is very remote and insecure, but he insisted," said Asadullah, one of the teachers. "There are Taliban on the way."

Mr. Barakzai was shocked by what he saw: Scores of boys in tattered clothes popped in and out of mine entrances. None appeared to have safety protection. Mr. Barakzai and a young teacher named Ahmad followed a ten-year-old miner deep into the mine to film the video.

—Habib Khan Totakhil, Nathan Hodge in Kabul and Kersten Zhang in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com

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