Exploding Lamps Pose Lethal Danger
Several people have died and others have been badly burned by exploding lamps filled with stolen aircraft fuel.
Istiqlal hospital in Kabul’s Darulaman area is the city’s only medical centre with a ward reserved almost exclusively for victims of burns caused by exploding domestic lamps. Twenty injured people were lying in the ward on one normal day in July.
In one bed lay 16-year-old Wahida, her body covered with burns caused by flames from a lamp which exploded in an accident blamed by officials on the use of stolen aircraft fuel from United States-led Coalition forces.
The high-octane fuel, siphoned from tankers serving the military, is sold cheaply as ordinary kerosene by roadside dealers. A US forces spokesman said he knew of no incidents of fuel going missing.
In a voice wracked with pain, Wahida told IWPR that as darkness fell one evening, she filled their lamp with oil her father had brought home.
“When the lamp caught fire, I tried to throw it away. But it exploded and burned all my body,” she said.
Standing by the bed of his wife – another badly burned victim – Fazel Jan says he bought what he thought was domestic kerosene from a stall in the city. It exploded as his wife began to fill the lamp from a one-gallon drum.
“I went to find the oil seller from whom I bought the oil, but I couldn’t find him,” said Fazel Jan. “I’m still looking for him – I’ll kill him if I get him.”
In the past four months, more than 200 people suffering from similar burns have been brought to the hospital from different parts of the country, said hospital director Sayed Asar Kamel.
He said the special unit was easily the best equipped in the country to deal with this specific type of injury, although it does treat other burn cases.
At the health ministry, spokesman Abdullah Fahim says they have recorded 217 such burn cases since March, and 14 of those admitted to hospital have died. One of the victims, a girl named Nila, was just 10 years old, and came from Kabul’s Khak-e-Jabar area where three other people had already been burned in similar incidents.
Large swathes of the country’s 34 provinces lack electricity, and even in Kabul, many of the three million-plus residents rely on kerosene lamps to provide light at night. Widespread poverty attracts people to traders offering cheap ways of fuelling their lamps.
Fahim said the fuel causing the blasts is aircraft fuel known as T-1, which is stolen from US bases and later sold in the market.
Mohammed Yunus Moghul, director of the commerce ministry’s liquid fuels department, says the aircraft fuels coded T-1, JT-1, and JP-8 look the same as ordinary kerosene used in lamps.
Jet engine fuel is kerosene with certain additives, and produced to more stringent specifications. The liquid is too volatile for any kind of domestic use.
“The burn cases mostly happen in areas where there are Coalition forces,” said Moghul, adding that drivers transporting fuel to the US-led forces steal some along the way and then sell it on.
Coalition force spokesman Lieutenant Jerry O’Hara said US troops had found no instances where such fuel had been diverted for local sale, adding that they purchased the fuel only once it arrived at the base.
“We don’t know anything about what happens with the fuel along the way – the people who bring us the fuel will probably know this,” he said.
Some tanker drivers admit much of the theft takes place before they reach their destination, but they also claim they pay bribes to smuggle some fuel out of the US bases.
One driver, who did not want to be named, said they were encouraged to take fuel from the tankers serving Coalition forces in Bagram airbase, north of Kabul. “The Americans pay 300 US dollars a time for each tanker driver, but the owners of the companies don’t pay us that money and tell us to sell fuel along the way,” he said.
According to this driver, the Americans usually didn’t check how much fuel was in the tankers arriving at their bases. “Sometimes, when Americans try to check the load, we just slip them 200 dollars and they don’t say anything,” he added.
Bribes are not always in cash, according to another driver carrying fuel to the coalition at the US base in Khost province, on the southern border with Pakistan.
“When I take fuel to Khost, I’m very happy because the Americans at the base are my friends – they always ask me for hashish and alcohol. One day I smuggled a whole tanker-load of fuel off their base in return for one bottle of alcohol. I then sold the fuel on the market,” he said.
Oil dealers buy the fuel from the drivers and pass it on to the public, although some first mix it with cheaper diesel, which is heavier and much less volatile.
“I have bought the fuel known as T-1 from those tanker drivers who transport it to the Americans,” admitted one dealer in the Kart-e-Now area of Kabul.
But this trader, who would not give his name, said that since he had learned that people had been burned and even killed, he had stopped buying the jet fuel.
“I would ask all Afghans only to buy from those fuel stations which we have issued with a licence – they shouldn’t buy from the roadside oil dealers,” said commerce ministry official Moghul.
This article was written by Rahim Gul Sarwan 30-Jul-05
Rahim Gul Sarwan is a freelance journalist in Kabul.