My first time in a fertilizers factory. Built by the Soviet Union in 1967 and commissioned in 1974, located nearby Mazar Sherif, not far from the borders with Uzbekistan. Large, rationally designed, antiquated in its appearance, surrounded by scattered trees and high grass, in the middle of the countryside, accessible via an old paved road, but still working. Tremendously well working. A real hiring hall, since it employs two thousand people. It is the Kud Bergh factory. Kud Bergh produces urea out of ammonia and gaseous carbon dioxide, at high pressure and relatively high temperature, which is obtained burning natural gas. A worker opens a tiny and squared window showing the inside of a combustion furnace, and it is a terrific Dante’s inferno scene. The factory takes water from the King River and energy from the combustion of Afghan gas, being a process which requires large energy consumption. It is a miracle that it still works regularly: a cluster of solid iron and heavy cement. On the facade of the ammonia section, two giant images of a chemical molecule and wheat sheaves overlooking the other factory sections. Pure socialist essential arts.
The facility’s yearly capacity of 105,000 tonne is not being utilized, as only a third of this amount of urea is being produced – far less urea required to supply the nation’s farmers. This is due to a lack of spare parts, shortage of gas, and other needed infrastructure upgrades. The Kud Bergh facility is outdated, has high operating costs, poor technical management and is not viable to be rehabilitated, but it still works defying age and technological developments. When you get into the huge storage hall, you do not have the impression that the factory is not running at its full capacity, because white bags of urea are everywhere, they form large and high stacks of bags separated by narrow corridors, where only shadow reigns. Many bags have been stockpiled for a long time because a grey dust covers them.
When you enter the energy power station serving the factory, you feel in the spaceship of Star Trek: obsolete technology for a 1970s science fiction production, with instructions on machinery written in Russian and English. A cold war living fossile, the idol of industrial revolution, producing fertilizers for the all country and beyond. In the factory compound carrying urea powder on a mobile tape to the bag filling machine, the air is so dusty that if you take a picture with the flash, it looks as if it were raining. Unlike ammonia, urea is internationally classified as a non-toxic compound, bot looking at how it envelops you with its white mantel, you can barely imagine how deep this mantel has penetrated workers’ flesh. We are accompanied by Haroun, “the man” of the security service. He wears an helmet, but he is the only one, none of us will be equipped with it! At the time of Russians, the rule applied that a chemical worker could not work more than 10 years in the sector. Haroun has been working for 33 years, and he is still alive. Does he represent the exception confirming the rule? Well, the rule is that workers die for cancer or other diseases related to exposure to chemical agents; eight cases in 2015. Najeb is a factory employee serving as well as unionist, and trying to do is best for workers’ sake and rights.
“Earlier, extra-money was offered for overtime; this is not the case anymore” he regrets.
“And what do you do to improve environmental and health standards here?” I ask him.
“They die, yes… We go to see the Government’s guys, but they do not do anything. Where can I go else?” he replies.
Ammonia can be highly toxic to a wide range of organisms. In humans, the greatest risk is from inhalation of ammonia vapour, with effects including irritation and corrosive damage to skin, eyes and respiratory tracts. At very high levels, inhalation of ammonia vapour can be fatal.
When we meet workers, they display their genuine pride for their task. They explain how machinery works. They have a job, it is important, and they earn a salary, 11,000 Afghani per month in the chemical department, the most dangerous. 142 € per month. The factory is their all life.
Kud Bergh water cooling system is like a piece of art, with water falling along methalic grids, creating vertical water curtains, reflecting rainbow flashes when the sun comes out of the clouds. Inside the production areas, the noise, an intense noise which started more than forty years ago, and never ended. When you enter in several factory sections, a puzzle of pipelines confuses your brain and makes you losing yourself’s bearings. In the large water reservoir, where sky-blue freshwater flowing from the river is stored, small fishes are growing. They came together with the river water. When the reservoir is emptied for cleaning operations, that happens every two years, the notables of the district come and take back home the sweet fishes. “We, the workers, are not even entitled to touch that fish” suggests to me one of them.
Small family-run corruption, nothing to do with the Big Money, not the kind of corruption you would find around US funds. “US Forces used to contract American companies to build civil infrastructures in my country” tells me Rami, an activist who previously worked for a long time in an American military camp, here in Afghanistan. “Once, I got to know the case of a road subcontracted 25 times, where at each step a part of the subvention disappeared in someone’s hands, until the final subcontractor built the road with the left funds… And the road got severely damaged within one year only since its inauguration” he discloses “Or the case of the one-hundred schools built by Americans, but in fact never built because the Ministry of Education stole the money”.
“At least Russians built something for the people, like the mills”, I often heard those days.
Is this exploitation? Is this industrial archeology? How is that: workers are dying exposed to industrial contamination, and things go on? Between present and past, they have to choose. They have to choose between a job and clean air. Between stability and precariousness. The miracle of a production going on still after forty years, and of workers still alive enough to serve the factory and produce the manna for the whole agriculture of the country is already the answer. Kud Bergh, a fertilizers factory, the perfect scenario for realist filmmaking. Russians do it better. Until the factory breaks down, Russians do it better.
 Source: Brigden, K. & Stringer, R., Ammonia and urea production: Incidents of ammonia release from the Profertil urea and ammonia facility, Bahia Blanca, Argentina, Greenpeace Research Laboratories, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK, December 2000.