Ports hope to gain new life

Monday, December 17, 2001

HAIRATON, Afghanistan -- The wharf at Hairaton is one of just two ports in all of Afghanistan, and it has no ferries, barges or boats. Some of the border guards who patrol it don't even know how to swim.

Things are a little better at the sister port across the Amu Darya River, in Termez, Uzbekistan. It has three functioning barges -- but no spare parts. And some of its freight containers are rusted shut.

Yet workers on both sides are upbeat. After four years of being idled by Afghan unrest, they are cranking up cranes and sweeping cobwebs from captains' cabins in hopes that international aid shipments will lead to a reawakening of this legendary Silk Road gateway.

"We have no boats. We have hope," said Gen. Aminullo Karim, commander of the Afghan border unit that controls the Hairaton port.

The revival of trade -- not just the movement of aid -- is likely to be far off. But it is seen as crucial to the prosperity of swaths of both impoverished, landlocked Central Asian countries.

Worldwide attention from the U.S.-led war on terrorist groups may help. The government of Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic, has strongly backed the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan and is playing host to at least 1,000 American military personnel.

But it took pressure from aid groups and Western governments to get Uzbekistan to reopen the border, which was closed in 1997 as the Taliban extended its control into northern Afghanistan. Uzbek authorities reluctantly resumed limited barge traffic last month following the Taliban's defeat in the area.

Potential prosperity

Uzbek leaders want to keep traffic down to make it easier to keep out militant Muslims, drug runners and refugees. However, Uzbek businesses and port officials on both sides are pushing to open things up to attract shippers and investment.

"The potential for prosperity is there, but we need to show that we deserve investment, that we are reliable partners," said the Termez port director, Shukhrat Rasulov.

Rasulov cursed the Afghan conflict for the area's economic problems. He also criticized Uzbekistan's flourishing corruption -- but strongly denied rumors that his own staff siphons off aid and demands bribes in exchange for access to barges.

Officials in Termez are so confident of a pending renaissance that they're planning festivities this week to launch a "New Silk Road."

Relief supplies

The U.N. World Food Program is shipping about 300 tons of relief supplies a day from Termez to Hairaton. "That is the maximum capacity that the infrastructure can handle," WFP warehouse manager Erik Nielsen said.

It is far below the 1,000-2,000 tons that aid groups would like to send across daily for 3 million northern Afghans threatened with hunger, cold and disease.

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