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(DV) Mars: Impressions from Kabul







Impressions from Kabul
by Simon Mars
May 19, 2005

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For some, Kabul has become a party town.

Exotic restaurants are everywhere. You can dine out on Thai, on Chinese (some of which are rumored to provide the kind of extras not usually seen on a traditional menu), on Croatian, even on Afghani. For the “Toyota Taliban” as some locals have started calling them it’s fun times with a frisson of danger and intense living. Toyota Taliban? A reference to the ubiquitous white NGO Land Cruisers that scurry from one guarded compound to the next in an endless round of discussions and briefing papers as to what should be done.

Well the sewers would be a start.

When it rains, a flood of muddy excrement flows down from the ramshackle housing built on Kabul’s surrounding hills; in the valley its cisterns and cesspits fill up and swamp the streets. A day later, after the sun has baked the dried effluent into a new road surface, the tanks, trucks, cars and donkeys that cruise its broken avenues pound it up into a miasma of dust that blinds and chokes the city.

The city that might, at the best of its times, have been able to accommodate 800,000 people is now home to over four million. The majority of them live in dire poverty with no jobs, running water, or electricity. Home for many families is a shipping container.

The UN says this is the world’s sixth least developed country. It has the worst education system. Life expectancy is 44½ years (twenty years less than in neighboring countries). One women dies in childbirth every thirty minutes.

It’s a city that’s crying out for help but if all you read is the corporate press then you’re stuck believing that help’s already arrived.

Americans with necks the size of melons, dressed in “occupier chic” of bandanas, goatee beards and sunglasses tear through the streets, standing tall in the turrets of their armoured cars which, as if on some satanic fairground ride, spin around three hundred and sixty degrees, high caliber machine gun sweeping the area.

Everyone talks about the danger. Don’t walk alone. Don’t walk at night. Don’t open your car window in case someone drops a hand grenade in.

The talk over the evening nightcap in one of Bin Laden’s old homes, now converted into a guesthouse (and what, you wonder, does he make of that?) is always on the danger. Have you heard that wolves have started eating babies again? Next thing you know a highly trained suicide wolf will be dropped through your car window while you’re stuck in traffic. Of course the danger is real, but it’s a lot more dangerous to drive up the Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai.

But wait, a brief pause in the diatribe. There are good people out there, doing good work. There are projects that are succeeding. Head out to the countryside and you find something called the National Solidarity Project. With financial assistance from international donors, the NSP provides money to villagers whose farms have been destroyed by war. The catch? That every twenty households elects one representative who then sits on village council to decide how they want the money to be spent. They invariably ask for a road to connect their village to a main road so they can get their goods to market. If they’re lucky each household gets $200 a year towards the reconstruction. And jobs for its men building the roads.

There’s a whole new industry that’s grown up in Afghanistan. They call themselves private security companies and they’ve become the country’s de facto police force. They guard the aid workers, the diplomats, the NGOs, the private foreign companies and in many cases the professional soldiers themselves. They can earn, depending on the risk and nationality and experience (and yes, for a US or European life is worth more than your average Nepali) $1000 a day. The majority of Afghanis have to work three years to reach such a sum. Yes, again, you can find some good guys in that industry, ex SAS or special forces who are doing a professional job, but talk to them and they roll their eyes in despair at some of the jokers and maniacs who have been employed by their industry.

Finally, a vignette. An armed convoy of journalists is being ferried out of the city to attend a ceremony to celebrate the resurfacing of a road. Such things are a big deal in Afghanistan. The drive from Kabul soon brings you into some of the world’s most stunning countryside. Immense pellucid blue skies dome the white-capped mountains that make up the Hindu Kush. The air, you notice, is pure as crystal. You stay on the road, though stepping off it requires you to be either a villager with no choice in the matter, or to have a fatalistic acceptance of your future that only a country strewn with landmines can impose. More than three hundred people a year were dying from mines left behind as departing gifts by the Soviets, the Mujahadeen, the Warlords and the Taliban -- and that was before the Americans littered the county with cluster bombs as they bombed the country into democracy. But you arrive safely and there in a tent is the new President, looking for all the world like a standup comedian in a funny hat, swapping gags with the battle hardened elders and warlords of the Panjshir valley where he won a rather less than impressive one percent of the votes in the last election. It would, you think, be a time for tact and reconciliation but that’s before the Americans arrive, landing their helicopter almost on top of the tent, blowing down its surrounding walls and covering the assembled dignitaries in mud.

Well why not? The Americans have paid for the road. It’ll have cost $12 million when it’s finished. Of course during the time it takes to build the road they’ll have spent $24 billion on the military keeping the country safe from the men with beards who still live in caves. But who counts the cost when freedom is on the march?

Simon Mars is a TV producer living in Dubai. He can be reached at:

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