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Sunday, July 18, 2004

A city on the mend?

It seems to be. I say seems to be because of course I really don’t have anything to compare it to and am at least somewhat weary of being too positive in my review.  Kabul was fortunate to escape the worst of the destruction during the Soviet occupation, and therefore I am not too sure just how much destruction the core of the city saw. The Soviets maintained Kabul under their firm control with East-German trained secret police and therefore with the people under this iron fist, destruction was not necessary as it was elsewhere. That said, in the 90s the city was hit hard, particularly the western section.

Of course, just because the Soviets didn’t pummel the city doesn’t mean it also escaped the lurking menace of landmines and unexploded ordinance. While the city is for the most part clear, there are areas out of the built up areas where I err on the side of caution to keep my feet and legs just where they are. Supposedly there are mines up near the top of the mountains that ring the city – the Soviets really went nuts dropping them from aircraft. There are quite a few over-flights of military aircraft and Antonov transports. Helicopters can be heard some nights and even in the early hours of the morning the sound of jet aircraft can be heard way overhead, presumably American military as the sound tends only to be heard on the same nights as there is a bit of a light show from behind the mountains to the south-east. I would have thought it to be lightning, except these lights could be seen last week when it was completely dry and they have always been coming from roughly the same area. I have no idea how far away they are.
Pictures of Massoud, the Tajik mujahideen leader and hero, are absolutely everywhere. It seems as though in death he has left behind a mythic legacy for Afghans, but in a country sorely lacking in institutions to bind the diverse people together, it can only help. President Karzai’s face is fairly common as well, though not nearly as common as Massoud’s.

The core of the city itself has some relatively modern buildings, but most of these are from the Soviet era and are showing definite signs of age and neglect. Another Soviet legacy seems to be at least one underpass for pedestrians, complete with shops built-in underground. Sea containers are fairly common in the city, as are other improvised structures. The other day I noticed a shell of an old van at the side of the road with bricks cemented inside to partition off tiny rooms. Outside of the city core, most buildings are made from mud and dung, though it is common to see all kinds of improvisation. For example, I saw cut up pieces from vegetable oil cans with massive ‘USA’ labels on them being used as shingles. UNHCR tents and tarps are everywhere, being used for everything it seems except for housing refugees.

Most of the vehicles on the road are early 90s Toyota Corolla station wagons, many of them with the steering wheels on the wrong (right-hand) side of the car – I suspect these were imported used from Japan. There are a few old Ladas rolling around and the odd Volga limousine. Bicycles are everywhere, both old ones that look like they have been fixed a million times and carried families around for a generation, as well as new ones of poor quality imported from China. There is a giant mountain in the middle of the city and the maps that are available lack any real detail, so it is a bit of a chore to get around. One taxi I was in last week bumped this truck in front, breaking the headlights and crunching the hood a little. I wasted no time in following the advice given to me to leave the area as fast as possible in case somehow the accident could be blamed on me on account of me being a westerner.

Most of the men wear the shalwaar khameez here, but by no means all. Many but by no means all of the women wear burqas, but all of the burqas are in the baby-blue favoured by the Taliban. There are taxis everywhere, all of them painted with yellow on the quarter panels and fenders with white doors. It’s funny how the colour of the taxis here made me think of all the pictures I had seen of Afghanistan for the last decade or so, similar to the way that seeing the orange and white taxis told me that I had actually arrived in Iraq back in May. There don’t seem to be that many amputees around given the scale of the landmine problem, but I suspect this is mostly due to the fact that most victims are in the countryside and perhaps even those that do get hit either die from their wounds or in time pass due to being unable to work and fend for themselves.

The Kabul river flows though the middle of the city. Actually... no, it doesn’t flow anywhere. There is a massive dike, lined by cement that goes through the middle of Kabul. There has been drought here for about four years, and I suspect this has been what has drained the river. Perhaps it was dry before, I don’t know. The riverbed is one of the few green areas around, with grass and a few plants feeding on what little water collects there during relatively infrequent rainfall. It rained both Wednesday and Thursday around mid-day and again on Thursday evening. The storms rolled in behind some massive winds that first brought dust followed by the huge drops of rain. The combination of dust and rain made for a real mess. The rain is most welcome, however, as it keeps the dust down while clearing the air and providing some much needed relief from the hot sun. Kabul is at 1800 meters so the sun gets quite intense and burns very quickly. The Afghans all seem to like asking me if I like the heat. My response: it is better than February in Canada. Except February in Canada has hockey, that is.

UN, NGO and various aid people are everywhere. Well, not everywhere exactly. Their Toyota Landcruisers are on all the roads, but you never see them outside – they seem to go from office to home and back the next day in their 4x4 cocoons. I don’t blame them at all, but it is surprising that in just casual wondering around you don’t run into any of them on the streets, ever. Occasionally one can see VIPs rolling through town in Suburbans, sometimes with a hummer both ahead and behind. The hummers look pretty much identical to the one the US has, except there are no markings and the men inside are not in uniform. They probably work for Dynacore or another one of these private security companies.

The massive presence of the international community seems to have already created a culture of dependence, though this conclusion is based only on the fact that street begging of westerners (me!) is a huge hassle, with street kids very persistent and are not shy at all in grabbing clothing and hands. This kind of real nuisance-type begging rather than sitting on a street corner is the worst I have ever seen.

This post sure reads like a summary of Rex Brynen’s ‘Peacebuilding’ course at McGill. See, this isn’t a vacation. It’s a field trip.

Kids selling toilet paper and water in central Kabul.

The Kabul River with people taking advantage of the small amount of water flowing to do their laundry.

German ISAF troops patrol past a mural of Massoud in downtown Kabul.

The view from the road leading up to the Intercontinental Hotel, West Kabul. When I was walking down this road Saturday a C130 flew past between the mountain the hotel is on and the mountain in the picture.