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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Not Yet the Jewel of Asia

The Afghan mountains are rich in emeralds, though it's finders keepers. The government insists the gems belong to the state.

September 25, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KHENJ, Afghanistan — General Manegy's luck turned one day when he spotted a fallen rock at his feet while watching over his goats on a winding mountain path.

Inside a broken shell of quartz was a small stone glittering green in the sunlight. The goatherd had never seen an emerald before but knew this rock was beautiful, and rare, and that some people paid for such things. So he picked it up, turned his flock around and let his imagination carry him down the steep mountainside.

It was springtime 1974 and Afghanistan was at peace. Perhaps a simple man's fate could shift as suddenly as an ancient rock split apart by snow and ice. "I thought I was going to be the richest guy in the world," Manegy, 78, said recently. "Of course I dreamed. I still am dreaming that I'll find some more emeralds. Back then, I thought I'd buy a car and more animals and build several houses.

"I thought of buying the best apartment in Kabul. I even thought of going to Saudi Arabia, to Mecca," Manegy added. "But I never went."

Manegy says it was God's will that he discovered Panjshir's emeralds and God's will that he remained too poor to make the journey for the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims who are able to go to the site of Islam's holiest shrine.

Much of his life since finding the precious stone has been a lesson in how fickle fortune can be. So, too, has it been for Afghanistan, whose mineral wealth is both a blessing and a curse.

Few Afghans have become rich from the country's vast reserves of emeralds, rubies and other precious stones, but many have fought and died trying to control the mountains that conceal them.

Afghanistan's interim government is now interested in the riches. If Kabul could wrest control of the Panjshir region's mines, and others across a long stretch of Afghanistan, the war-ruined country could earn billions of dollars a year from its minerals, said Mohammed Mahfooz, the acting minister of mines and industries. Some gem mines near Pakistan are funding Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, Mahfooz added.

The Panjshiris insist that they will fight any efforts to move in by the central government, multinational corporations, the Taliban or terrorists, just as they once fought off Soviet soldiers.

It was in 1979 that the Red Army invaded, and Manegy and his family fled with the rest of the village into the mountains to escape the bombing that leveled entire towns.

The war didn't end for another decade, and then another war began, and then another. The emerald miners have kept digging through it all, and as with Manegy, most of their dreams were undone by Afghanistan's harsh reality.

Manegy was never a military man, but friends kept calling him "general," so he took the title as his first name. It suits him well. In a land beaten down by more than 23 years of war, he stands with shoulders back, chin up, as straight and proud as a soldier.

Time couldn't bow Manegy, but it ate away at his teeth. Making the best of the three he has left, he welcomes a foreign visitor to his small farmhouse with a broad smile and a high honor of Panjshiri hospitality: "I will serve you milk!"

Over cups of milk drawn fresh from the family cow, warmed in a copper kettle and sweetened with teaspoons of sugar, Manegy's mind drifts back to the day when fate, and his 50 goats, led him to the broken rock.

After trekking down the mountain with what he hoped was a fortune in his pocket, Manegy went to a trusted friend who was an experienced trader.

Straightaway, he informed Manegy that his green stone was a precious emerald. The gem rush was on.

Within three days, villagers were on the mountainside, chipping away with hammers, shovels and steel bars. Almost 30 years later, many of their grown children are still at it, working largely in village consortiums searching for the mother lode.

Manegy got around $160 for his emerald, which seemed a lot to him for a rock.

He would get at least $20,000 for that stone today, said Abdul Mahbood, a local gem trader, who did the math on a solar-powered calculator he carries in a vest pocket. From another, he took out a ball of cellophane crumpled around emeralds, several bigger than sugar cubes.

Mahbood spilled them into his palm, tilting it back and forth so the emeralds could catch the soft afternoon light. They clicked in his hand like a child's marbles. Mahbood smiled.

It was seven years after Manegy's discovery before Panjshiris realized they had been selling the precious stones cheap to the steady stream of foreign buyers riding through the mountains on donkeys from neighboring Pakistan, Mahbood said. As demand for Afghan emeralds grew, so did the price, and Panjshiris became more savvy gem dealers.

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