Pakistan Lowari: Frozen travellers trapped by an unfinished tunnel

Water dripping from the top of the crumbling, cave-like opening of an unfinished tunnel in northern Pakistan forms into icicles, accentuating the bite of a freezing January morning.

About a kilometre down the valley behind, a large huddle of passenger vans, trucks and cars waits for the tunnel to open. They have been here for many endless hours.

Lowari trucks parked

In one rented vehicle is the coffin and body of an old woman on way to her own funeral, but she is running late.

On the other side of the mountain, in her home village, people have already gathered for the burial.

Anxiety is writ large on the face of her son, Wali Ahmad, a soldier in the Pakistani army and a resident of Chitral district, located on the far side of the 8.6km (5.2-mile) Lowari tunnel.

Wali Ahmed - who is trying to bury his mother Wali Ahmed worries that he might not get his mother's body to her own funeral on time

"My mother died in Peshawar. Now we have to take her home for burial. We don't know if they will open the tunnel in time for us to make it there in daylight," he says.

It's at least three hours' drive to his village of Golen from where he's standing. It's already approaching midday, and the towering mountains of the Hindu Kush range shut off the winter sunlight from most of Chitral's 34 branch valleys after 4pm.

At a little over 7,000 feet (2,500m) above sea level, the tunnel is the only exit route in winter for the 500,000 population of Chitral.

Dozens of loaded trucks are parked every few kilometres along the rocky, broken mountain road that winds up from the town of Dir to the tunnel.

Some drivers have lit gas cylinders beneath the engines to keep them warm and prevent the pipes from bursting due to freezing temperatures.

Mohammad Qasim Khan, a resident of Drosh area in Chitral, is the head of another party waiting for the tunnel to open.

"My daughter's just been operated for appendicitis, and my cousin got a rod fixed in his left leg which suffered a fracture," he says.

Young girl and recuperating man stuck at Lowari In need of rest - but they are stuck in a car waiting for the chance to get through

"They can't stand the cold and the wait, but we are told the tunnel is closed. We drove some eight hours from a hospital in Peshawar, and now we've been stuck in this wilderness for more than six hours. There's no food or heating here, and there are no toilets."

It is the same story on the Chitral side of the tunnel - residents taking sick relatives to hospitals in Peshawar, students and job seekers trying to make it to their appointed interviews, and workers with jobs in the Gulf fretting over whether they'll be able to catch their flights from Peshawar and Islamabad.

All these people are caught in a gridlock that started when the government suddenly decided to reschedule work on the tunnel ahead of this winter.

The fortunes of the people of Chitral have fluctuated with the fortunes of the Lowari tunnel project.

Updated map

In summers, a road built by the British over the 10,230ft (3,140m) Lowari Pass links them to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Chitral is a part. But the pass closes in mid-December due to snow.

Two other passes - one connecting Chitral to the Afghan province of Badakhshan, and the other linking it to Pakistan's north-eastern Gilgit-Baltistan region - are more than 12,000 feet high and also remain snowbound in winters.

The region's only natural all-weather route passes through its south-western town of Arandu into Afghanistan, and follows a southward route via the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Ningarhar into Pakistan's Peshawar valley.

But that is no longer an option.

"The Arandu route closed when a Pakistani military operation in the Swat region in 2009 pushed Islamist militants into the Kunar region," says Shahzada Iftikharuddin, Chitral's representative in Pakistan's national parliament.

"This happened when the Americans wound up their bases in the Kunar region, making it possible for these militants to set up sanctuaries there. A number of Chitrali travellers were held and beheaded by them in 2010."

Two Chitral Scouts soldiers on duty along the approach to the Chitral end of the tunnel Chitral Scouts have helped maintain security along this perilous route

The tunnel was commissioned in late 2005, and by 2008 the construction contractor, Sambu JV of South Korea, had dug the 8.6km tunnel all the way through. But funding for the project stopped when a new government took over.

Over the next few years, this unfinished tunnel remained open for winter traffic.

In 2011, when some funds became available and work commenced, public use of the tunnel was restricted to three alternate days in a week. This catered to the needs of the locals and there was no crisis.

But after the first snow in late November this year, the commuters were shocked to discover that a new standard operating procedure (SOP) permitted three days of transit through the tunnel only every two weeks instead of one.

Hundreds of people were stranded in the snow. Those with money had to spend weeks in Dir town's hotel rooms. Others slept in their vehicles or turned back.

Lowari commuters trying to walk to tunnel to find out what is up Commuters walk along the ridge to try and find out what the delay with the tunnel is

In Chitral, food supplies became scarce, sparking protests that finally forced the authorities to revise the SOP and open the tunnel twice a week - on Saturdays and Sundays - for six hours a day.

The authorities defend the new arrangement as the only viable balance between human suffering and project completion.

"The project cost has escalated from 5bn rupees to 18bn, and we have to pay penalties to the contractor for idle hours," says Hameed Hussain, the project director of Lowari tunnel.

Besides, six hours of public traffic pushes carbon levels inside the tunnel beyond human tolerance.

"We need an extra four to five hours to ventilate the tunnel before the workers can get to work safely," he says.

Puddles in Tunnel

And there is still a lot of work to do.

At the moment, there is no proper lighting in the tunnel, no exhaust system and no emergency services.

Most of the tunnel is still without the shotcrete lining, retaining walls or a metalled road. Water seepage from the ceiling and walls forms into puddles on the floor.

In addition, the widening process leaves the tunnel floor strewn with debris, causing traffic jams inside the tunnel and endangering those travelling in open vehicles.

Mr Hussain says he recovered four persons from a truck that had broken down inside the tunnel last week. All of them had fainted.

But bound by towering mountains on all sides, the people of Chitral are just too desperate not to take a chance with this drive through hell.

Naila Shahid Naila Shahid missed an interview for a job she was sure she would get because of the snows and the tunnel

And those who can't make it, rue it.

Naila Shahid is one of them.

A graduate in environmental sciences, she had to miss an interview for an assistant professor's job at a university in Dir district because that would mean living in a hotel room for a whole week - a social and financial impropriety.

"I was on top of the merit list. I received a call to appear for the interview. I knew I couldn't make it because the tunnel would have closed by the time I was finished and would next open only on the following Saturday," she says.

"There is no male member of the family available to accompany me for a week in a strange land. I cried last night. This job would have helped me enroll for a doctorate."

The new deadline for the tunnel's completion is 2017. Until then, every time the snows block the passes, many funerals are likely to be missed, many careers suffer setbacks and many tears are shed in Chitral.

Lowari Trucks lined up to entrance of tunnel

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