While many of Pakistan’s troubles are self-inflicted, the country has suffered from 30 years of war in neighboring Afghanistan. This has included bombs from Afghan battlefields exploding in the scrapyards of Lahore…
Basic safeguards such as work gloves are a luxury for Pakistani scrapyard laborers. These men hold oily rags they use to protect their hands when feeding steel scrap into a chopping machine. Others are shod in sandals. (Photo by James Rupert)
Newsday, 11 May 2006
BY JAMES RUPERT — Staff Correspondent
Misri Shah, which locals say is Pakistan’s largest scrap market, reflects much of life for millions. It’s a chaotic, unregulated, energetic community where long, hard, dirty labor provides comfortable lives for a few, but mere survival for most. And it is a reminder that no place in Pakistan is insulated from three decades of war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Trucks and donkey carts pack Misri Shah’s dirt alleys, bringing the engines, pipes, train parts, ship anchors and other varieties of industrial metal that this country has worn out. Men with hammers, cutting torches, grinders and presses attack the mounds of junk, sorting it into metal to be melted down or otherwise recycled into Pakistan’s economy.
“The government must properly check these trucks [at the border] and prevent bombs from coming to Lahore,” he said. Still, ordnance trickles in to Misri Shah, scrap yard owners and workers said.
“People just pay bribes and bring in what they want,” said Ikhlaq Ahmed, who runs one of the neighborhood’s hundreds of small scrap yards. Historically, Pakistan never has fully controlled its borders with Iran and Afghanistan, which span remote, rugged mountains and deserts peopled by staunchly independent Pashtun and Baluch tribes who cross the frontier largely at will.
The Central Iron Merchants’ Association has vowed to fine any dealer found to be dealing in bomb scrap, but that rule, too, is often ignored, Ahmed said. Bombs and shells are formally prohibited but can be bought cheaply, if discreetly. Once they are broken and unrecognizable, their steel and other metals can be sold for normal prices, yielding extra profit.
The initial police report on the explosion last month says a second, live bomb was found at the site, and accuses the scrapyard’s owners, Munir and Kassim Ittifaq, of illegally dealing in ordnance.
The owner of a nearby yard, Mohammed Bashir Kumboh, doubted their guilt, noting that the explosion happened on a Sunday, when they were absent and their yard was closed. Misri Shah’s poorly paid laborers often work Sundays on their own, buying and breaking small items for a few extra rupees, Kumboh said, suggesting that’s what Mushtaque was doing.
Dealing with danger
For Misri Shah’s workers, bombs from Afghanistan are a fairly exotic danger. Smaller explosions happen every week, Ahmed and others said, if a bullet, shock absorber or any other hydraulic cylinder slips unnoticed into a furnace or press.
More constant threats are the cutting torches, chopping machines and hot, jagged steel the workers handle all day to prepare the metal for melting or sorting. The scrapyard owners support a local dispensary that is visited by 50 to 60 men each day, a quarter of them with work-related burns or lacerations, a worker there said.
“We provide all safety measures for our workers,” said Kumboh, sitting on a rope bed a week ago in the hot, humid shade of his scrapyard’s only tree. Yards away, his workers did wear heavy boots, rather than the sandals often seen here. But they sliced steel using gas cutting torches with no protective goggles or gloves. Others unloaded heavy pipes from a truck, some using rags in an effort to protect their hands.
© Newsday 2006