Treasure Land

Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

Gem valley Panjshir, in the northeastern part of the country, is mined for emeralds.

Ohammad Qayem Zayee squats on the edge of the mountain, letting a plastic wrapper from his sponge cake catch the breeze and skitter away. Qayem, 26, doesn't usually stop for breaks during the two-hour trek up to his mine in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley, but his feebler guests have to catch their breath. As they do so, Qayem, wearing a heavy five-o'clock shadow and an oversize fatigue jacket, ponders his chosen profession: emerald prospecting. "If we find something, we can make millions; if we don't, we keep working," he says, looking out over the deep valley to a ridge of...

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