Afghanistan's fabulous ruby mines plundered by thieves
Only a few hours' drive from the Afghan capital Kabul is an area renowned for some of the world's brightest and most valuable rubies. But this wealth is being plundered by thieves, corrupt officials and the Taliban, as the BBC's Bilal Sarwary discovers.
The sun was about to rise over the Hindu Kush peaks surrounding Kabul when we hit the road to Jegdalek.
It is a mountainous area noted for its rugged beauty in Kabul's Surobi district, some 96km (60 miles) south-east of the capital.
There are opium crops here, but it is ruby mines that have earned Jegdalek such renown.
It is seen as a part of the country which could hold the key to many of Afghanistan's pressing economic woes.
"Jegdalek mines have been worked for more than 500 years," one tribal elder told me.
"They are known for their high-grade blood-red rubies, which were popular with royalty across the world."
But the great and the good willing to pay magnificent prices no longer purchase Jegdalek rubies. Tribal elders say that instead the mines are being plundered by thieves, corrupt officials and the Taliban.
The situation has become so worrying, officials say, that President Hamid Karzai has become seriously concerned.
"He is aware that we can easily become [like certain] African countries, where mineral worth is a curse, not a blessing, and could be used to further destabilise the country," a presidential official told the BBC.
There is supposed to be a ban on ruby mining because the government views the mines as national wealth. Despite government denials, local traders in Jegdalek bazaar openly display newly-mined gems.
Jegdalek is not a wealthy area, sandwiched between the snowy passes of Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains on one side and Pakistan's Parachinar valley on another.
There are mostly mud houses and ruins - its few roads are in a poor condition and locals say that there is no electricity or drinking water.
Like much of rural Afghanistan, the government's diktats are of little consequence here, which is why the ruby mining ban is so flagrantly flouted.
Officials admitted to the BBC that the government was not in control of dozens of mines for precious and semi-precious stones around the country.
"The Taliban are greedy and they lure locals to mine the area unprofessionally," says Wasil Khan, a disgruntled resident of a village near the mines.
"Unskilled miners dig huge, deep holes, fill them up with gunpowder and then set them on fire. Such blasts have damaged the mines as well as the wealth that lies underneath."
To the mines
The hills of the area are covered with hundreds of white trenches, leading the way to the mines themselves.
Mr Khan says that the mines rarely produce the red rubies they were once famous for - more often than not semi-transparent pink sapphires are the only gems found, even at depths of 150m (492ft).
But those who are illegally mining think otherwise, and the government clearly contends that much of value still lies deep within the soil here.
Once a major base of mujahideen fighters during the Soviet invasion of the country, local officials say that two-thirds of Jegdalek is now controlled by the insurgents.
"The Taliban tell the locals to work here," police officer Mohammed Talib - who accompanied us on our tour of the region - told us.
"They tell them: 'We will give you 25% of the profit on the rubies you bring. The best rubies are on Taliban's side of the mountain'."
Dr Talib said that every Friday the Taliban organises a ruby bazaar near Jegdalek in the small village of Soar Naw - a remote and mountainous area covered with deeply forested valleys.
Here they sell rubies which are then smuggled to Dubai, Pakistan and Thailand.
Just two months ago, the Taliban reportedly smuggled a ruby out of the area which sold for $600,000 (£383,000) in Dubai. While there is no way of substantiating this claim, similar stories abound.
"The income from rubies is used to buy weapons and pay fighters. If we can somehow plug this source, it will be a big blow to Taliban finances," an intelligence officer accompanying the police party said.
Police say that other criminal groups - working under the name of the Taliban - are exploiting the area's wealth and denuding the landscape solely for cash returns.
The police officer took me inside one of the mines. It is a vertical, narrow trench surrounded by thick marble walls about 4m (13ft) long with a hole in the surface. Yet despite this compelling evidence of recent mining, police insist the ban is being enforced.
As I was trying to look deeper into the mines, a policeman came running up to the commander and said something in his ear.
"We will have to wind up," the officer said. "My men have spotted some suspicious people on one of the hills. They could be locals, but I wouldn't like to take a chance."
As we prepared to make a hasty exit, nearly a dozen Taliban fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns took positions in the nearby hills, less than a kilometre away from our position.
Back in Kabul, mining official Tamim Asey admits that the government is losing millions of dollars every year as powerful warlords, tribal chieftains and corrupt officials collude to rob the nation of its natural resources.
He says that the priority is to ensure that revenue from the mines - which for years has been the source of wealth for different power brokers - goes to the government and people of Afghanistan.
"It is unfortunate indeed that the country's assets are not benefiting people who need it most," Mr Asey lamented.