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Born-again Kabul builds on hope

Land prices in the Afghanistan capital are steep and war scars still show. But changes point to a better future, writes Sutirtho Patranobis.

india Updated: Sep 22, 2007 00:03 IST

On the western edge of Kabul lie the ruins of the Darulaman Palace. A reminder of a grand and violent past but the picture of an uncertain present. Built by King Amanullah in the early 1920s, the palace was once the pride of Kabul with its great domes, imposing pillars, arched gateways and gushing fountains. Now, it is a sort of a Brokedown Palace of the Dead — the domes are bombed out, walls are riddled with bullet holes, the pillars have crumbled and the fountains are dry.

Barbed, jagged wires encircle its remains with a lone police post keeping a bored eye on visitors. Abdul Qader has parked the Toyota Surf in front of the palace, built on a hillock, and both of us have stepped out for a smoke.

Qader’s Hindi is good — years of watching Hindi movies and interacting with Indians who he drove around Kabul have not done any harm — and he is equally good in blowing rings of smoke into the sky. “Nothing good will ever happen to this country. A lot of innocent blood has been spilt on this land,” Qader says while looking at the ruins through his Lennon glasses. He is 23.

Remains of another day

In front of us lies Kabul city, a city attempting to rebuild itself after years of invasion, civil war and the rule of the Taliban. Five years is, however, not enough for a city to recover from violence. And in Kabul, especially in the western part of the city — the frontline of battle between Ahmed Shah Massoud-led Northern Alliance and the Hizb-i-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar — several bombed-out buildings are a reminder of 23 years of violence.

The former Soviet Embassy is one such building, which now has the walls standing against each other. The road leading to the Darulaman palace itself was once the grand four-lane avenue of the city, lined with leafy trees and neon lights. The trees are long gone and have been replaced by garish wedding halls and small utility shops, built on the rubble of destroyed buildings.

In other parts of the city, gyms, beauty parlours and a couple of shopping malls have come up where young Afghan men hang out in the evenings and families take time out to buy clothes and accessories. Chicken Street — misleading name because not a single chicken is within sight — is the place for the few tourists who land in Kabul. The shop owners are open to bargaining and the tourists can pick up carpets, dry fruit, antique pieces and semi-precious stones like the lapis lazuli.

Mixed bag on mean streets

The roads of Kabul are choked with imported cars, many of them are second-hand bought from Iran and Dubai. “The city roads have a capacity of 40,000 cars. Currently, there are more than 2,00,000 cars running in Kabul,” say foreign ministry official, Mohammad Bashir Khan. In fact, the streets are so crowded with petrol and diesel-spewing vehicles that traffic lights are switched off. Policemen are left to manage traffic.

Land prices have shot up since 2002 and plush houses have come up in the posh part of the city called the Wazir Akbar Khan, where nearly all the diplomatic missions are located. For the poor, staying in the city is becoming costly. So, they have moved up the brown, barren hills that surround Kabul, grabbed land on the slopes and built mud houses. These houses on the hills do not have electricity and get very little water.

The seasonal Kabul River runs through the city — and drowns itself in the Indus in Pakistan — but at this time of the year it is just a long carpet of grass. Temporary markets come up on the river bed when the water is just a trickle. One such bazaar is called the Titanic Market. Why? Because in summer when water from melting snow gushes down the river from the mountains, the market sinks.

About 150 km from Kabul is the Panjshir Valley, which remained under the undisputed control of Massoud — remembered as the ‘Lion of Panjshir’ — till two men posing as television journalists assassinated him on September 9, two days before 9/11.

Massoud and his Mujahideens stalled both the Soviet army as well as the Taliban from taking control of the Valley. Since his assassination, 9/9 is remembered as the martyr’s day in Afghanistan.

In memory of a martyr

The road to the Valley has been newly laid and passes through the town of Charikha, the route, which Babur took on his way to India. The entry into the valley is through a narrow gorge with sheer rock faces rising on either side. The Panjshir River flows through the valley, allowing the Tajik community to grow vegetables and fruits.

We stop at the striking mausoleum being built in Massoud’s memory, on the top of a hill. Thousands have gathered to pay their respects to the slain leader. Later, we reach a house that Massoud had built just months before his death. The house is in the middle of a fruit orchards of red and green apples, apricot and grapes. Frail, old Sammandar, who was with the Tajik leader for more than 20 years, is the caretaker of the house. He says in the local dialect that it is a pity that Massoud could barely live in the house for month. But more importantly, he was successful in preventing foreign invaders from taking over his home.