Mes Aynank, Afghanistan
Mes Aynak in Afghanistan is 69KM South east from Kabul and 25 km from Pakistan border. It lies along the famous Silk Road and was one of the biggest Buddhist centers in Afghanistan till 7th century AD and major stronghold of Kushan empire till 4th century BC. Although it’s relation with Kushan empire is largely forgotten, it’s still famous for it’s archaeological importance as the second biggest archaeological site related to Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan. It gained notoriety in late 1990s as a training camp for terrorists run by where Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and was again promptly forgotten until a Chinese mining company won the contract for mining copper in 2007 for $ 3.5 Billion. The area is believed to hold the 2nd largest copper deposits in whole world. Afghanistan government is expected to earn $ 800 million even before the mining starts in earnest with royalties worth billions coming in later.
Owing to it’s unexplored archaeological treasures, Chinese agreed to halt all mining activities until the site was properly surveyed and excavated by archaeologists. Although the mining was expected to start in 2014, there was considerable pressure on under-funded and under-staffed international archaeological teams to release as much area as possible for mining. Such moves had been been condemned from various quarters, with some people equating actions of Chinese firm equivalent to those of Taliban destroying Buddhist statues and artifacts in Bamiyan. But money is a strong motivator and Chinese had succeeded in persuaded enough people in power to start mining excavation on a plot on site much before the agreed time line. By early 2012, 500 Chinese workers hired by Chinese State Mining Corp. had already landed and begun initial groundwork on the site. A large number of Afghan civilians were also hired and pressed to work. For a country like Afghanistan it was like manna from heaven and nobody except the archaeological community and Americans was really complaining.
Sentiment among American public, whoever cared to know about the issue was of righteous betrayal. Thousands of American lives were lost and trillions of dollars spent in helping Afghans and it was Chinese who were stealing multi-billion dollar under their very noses.
Although most of the supervisors and all of the management was Chinese, going was good initially. But as with most foreign run operations, the tensions started to develop between the local workers and their foreigner supervisors. While Chinese could not understand the Afghan or muslims revulsion of pork, alcohol and ban on most forms of entertainment, Afghans on their part were put off by what they felt somewhat arrogant and exploitative attitude of their Chinese supervisors. But after a few initial hiccups, both parties were able to get along tolerably well. The mining process was slowly picking up steam with scale of operations increasing steadily.
It was on such a day that Rastin Khan walked in to the cabin of his Chinese supervisor asking for a holiday for himself and a few of his colleagues, which incidentally included most of his fellow villagers who worked alongside him. Wen Gong, was one of the few Chinese personnel on site who knew Pashto, one of languages spoken by Afghans. He took a look at the company’s official holiday calendar and pointed it to Rastin, “ No holiday here Rastin. Can’t do that.”
Rastin exceeded his Chinese supervisor in height by at least 14 inches and he looked down up on the diminutive man as one would look at a kid, “You don’t understand. It’s my brother’s marriage and I along with my cousins and village men need to be there. It’s just for four days.”
Wen shook his head emphatically, “ No, what you ask for is simply impossible. We cannot allow so many people to go on leave at this time. 18 workers ! Why do you need so many people for so long anyway ?” Even before Rastin could open his mouth to reply, he spoke again, “ It’s impossible anyway. You’ll have to come to work. We need every single man here.”
Rastin expressed an expression of exasperation. He was not used to some dwarfish guy in funny clothes and language boss him around like a lowly servant. But the mining job one of very few paying jobs in the country and he swallowed his pride and controlled his steadily rising anger, “ He is my only surviving brother. If I and my village men are not present in wedding, it’ll be very inconvenient and shameful for my whole family and my village. I cannot afford to lose face like this.”
Now loss of face was one expression that Wen was familiar with. But still he had to save his own, “I cannot help you in this matter then. You can take one day off tomorrow but we are facing shortage of workers and anything beyond that is impossible .”
“One day !” Rastin exclaimed with disdain. “What will I do of one day’s leave ?”
Wen cut in coldly, “That’s all Rastin. Take this or leave the job. We have a long line of applicants begging for work.”
Rastin shouted in anger, “ Just because you have the mine, you think that you can treat us like dirt ? My father is head of my village and we take orders from no one. Least of all, stinky little rats like you.”
The burly Afghan’s loud voice had begun to cause some commotion amongst his fellow countrymen. Some of them stopped whatever work they were busy with and started jostling to hear the conversation. This attracted the attention of Chinese guards, who started waving and gesturing the workers to get back to work. The commotion was interrupted by the sound of door crashing open and supervisor Wen following half flying in to the crowd. A stunned silence befell the crowd only to be broken by sounds of Afghans shouting and gesturing wildly by the appearance of Rastin a moment later. A few Chinese officers flanked by armed guards came running to the rescue of Wen who was lying dazed surrounded by a somewhat hostile crowd. Arrival of armed guards further infuriated the Afghan, resulting in a fair bit of jostling.
Although the unarmed Afghans formed a smaller part of the workforce, Chinese workers thought better of antagonizing them further. But an example had to be set. It was one unruly worker today, tomorrow there will be five. Such behaviour in an Chinese enterprise was simply unacceptable and the senior Chinese manager fired Rastin and few of his friends on the spot. The announcement was greeted by loud abuses and flash strike of all the Afghan workers. They were in turn warned of dismissals themselves, but the warning fell on deaf ears. Instead, it served as the proverbial last straw for the Afghans, who went on a rampage inside the premises. A large quantity of recently imported shiny new machinery was broken and set on fire, followed by parts of the office building. Chinese guards were becoming increasingly nervous and it was only a matter of time before a few bullets were fired. Rastin along with 6 other workers were shot, 3 of them died some time later.
Members of powerful local tribes took the incident as a personal insult and grave provocation. As is the case with all such cases, blood had to be paid for with blood. It being Chinese made no difference. A Lashkar of 180 men was soon assembled which ambushed the mining site just a few hours later. They attacked armed with RPGs, Machine guns and AKs before the besieged Chinese had any chance of organisng proper defence or call for help. Most of the NATO forces were away from the area and had little desire of getting involved in another useless bloody skirmish involving locals and Chinese. As such, the Afghan Lashkar had little difficulty in overwhelming the defences and taking hundreds of Chinese personnel hostage. Except for a twenty senior officials, all of them were tied and forced marched towards general direction of Pakistan before letting go.
The incident didn’t go well with Afghan government either. It immediately came under enormous domestic pressure to renegotiate the contract with Chinese, if not kick them outright.