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Seven days in Kabul

‘Kabul will never become what it was,’ Afghan Professor Rafi Samizay says to me.

‘Besides you have to remember there are no good old days. Even in the ‘70s there were problems.’

It’s the first day of the ‘New Vision for Kabul’ five-day conference he has helped to organise. Academics, aid workers, philanthropists and businessmen from 25 countries have gathered together for the first time. I’m representing the Rotary Club of Canberra and am the only Australian, apart from the President of the Australian Afghanistan Association, Wali Hakim.

Professor Samizay and I are standing in the autumn sunshine outside the recently renovated auditorium of the Lycée Estiqlal where the conference is being held. Armed boy soldiers in oversized uniforms lounge against the walls, smoking and posing for photographs. They are also wearing black Calvin Klein T-shirts, a gift from the high fashion clothing company. Getting into the conference means two bag and body searches with meticulous attention to cameras and mobile phones. Four months ago the French-built school around us was almost destroyed by bullet and mortar fire.

Professor Samizay’s statement seems understandably bleak. Hardly a centimetre of the city has not been damaged or flattened by the war of the northern warlords. Eighty per cent of the adobe houses, block after block along the pot-holed, furrowed roads, are now dust and rubble. Half of the city’s 2.2 million people are squatting in the ruins with three thousand more ‘returnees’ each day. And with no reliable clean water, garbage disposal, sewerage, drainage, electricity or telephone systems, optimism seems an impossible sentiment.

Across the road from the Lycée Estiqlal is the fifty-year-old, Soviet-designed Kabul Hotel where conference delegates have been accommodated. The corner of the hotel was demolished when the ammunition stores at the Presidential Palace ignited. At the hotel gates, the beggars have gathered. Women in sky-blue chadors squat in the dust. Little kids, skinny as sticks, cry out softly to passersby. By contrast, the crippled boy is fast and efficient, scooting round the corner with broken sandshoes on his hands and dragging his twisted legs. He parks directly in front of us and puts out his palm. Stephen Rossi, the folksy engineer from West Virginia with a plan to rebuild the city’s sewerage and drainage system, kneels down and takes the child in his arms. He hugs him then discreetly stuffs a wad of American dollars down his shirt.

The UN-sanctioned International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) patrols the streets and circles the sandbagged airport every hour in helicopters like lethal black insects. The fields around the landing strip are littered with the burnt-out wreckage of aeroplanes and army trucks. The previous day, flying in over the Hindu Kush, the mountains were dotted with deserted settlements of roofless buildings and broken walls. Outside Kabul’s island of peace, the war is not yet finished. Inside Kabul there is still a curfew. Nothing moves from midnight to 4am, except for a pack of crazed, half-starved dogs who run yelping through the darkness.

‘What’s happened during the last 23 years,’ Professor Samizay says, ‘is very tragic at all levels. It makes you angry. And yet people here are so good—violent and uncompromising on the one hand, gentle and polite on the other.’

The professor is an eminent member of the Afghan intellectual diaspora, one of a group of more than 50 engineers, urban planners and architects who have come home deliberately to help plan the city’s future. A short, balding man with a creased kindly face, he strives to take a background role in the conference. As a result, almost everyone consults with him frequently and defers to his opinions. He was formerly Director of Kabul University’s Architectural School, but was imprisoned during the Russian occupation and forced to flee the country in 1981. These days he heads the School of Architecture and Construction Management at Washington State University, teaching his third-year students to plan buildings sensitive to Afghanistan’s geography and culture.

A culture of war, political instability and economic ruin?

Samizay shakes his head. ‘Perhaps there is the danger the old guard steps into the political vacuum. But we must not let political manoeuvrings get in the way of reconstruction.’

On the first afternoon we tour the city, pausing at the huge Darulaman Palace on a hillock on the outskirts. The building was home to King Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, who fled into exile after a Soviet-backed military coup in 1973. Built in the 1920s, it was modelled on the grand 19th-century German palaces in Munich, and bombed to a ruin by warlord Gulbuddin Hikmetyar in the 1990s. Our tour guide, architect Najim Azadzoi, straight-backed, silver-haired with an aristocratic elegance and impatience, stands in the courtyard with tears streaming down his cheeks.

‘We did it to ourselves,’ he tells me, ‘this destruction. But, yes, of course we will rebuild it.’

For the first time I glimpse the issues behind the conference’s dreams for re-creating the city. How do you shuffle the priorities: deciding what must be done urgently and what are long-term projects? Squatter housing versus conservation of architectural heritage? Modernisation versus memory? What does sensitivity to local culture really imply to people who need proper shelter immediately? What does it really mean to aim to reweave the urban fabric into a calm, harmonious, prosperous city?

During the next two days of the conference there is constant talk of the importance of a master plan, a blueprint covering every aspect of redevelopment. It seems clear there is nothing that does not need to be fixed and there’s an anxiety about who will steer and fund the implementation of such a multifaceted plan. Everyone is tacitly aware that rebuilding is an integral part of the peacemaking—without it there will be more conflict and political instability. UN-Habitat has helped to sponsor the conference but the UN’s pledge of $US4.5 billion to Afghanistan last January has been slow to arrive.

On the third day UN-Habitat Director of Asia and Pacific Programs, Toshiyasu Noda, unveils the ‘Draft Reconstruction Vision: Crescent to Full Moon Initiative’ from the Japanese Society of Civil Engineers. After the lengthy, impassioned speeches of the Afghan professionals, Toshiyasu is cool, logical. A summary of the draft initiative is distributed to the delegates for written comment and we are taken crisply through the main points: population trends, agriculture production targets, landmine clearance, industrial rehabilitation and political unity. It’s a humane, comprehensive document which also points out that at $US80 per head per year, the UN billions are far from sufficient. Of course the country will need all the help it can get from NGOs, international aid and private sector investment.
So who on earth would invest in the country right now?

Akil Erturk is a Turkish Business Development Coordinator for an American-based construction company owned by two expatriate Afghan businessmen. He attends all the long conference sessions and tirelessly works the room during the coffee breaks. Over afternoon tea on the Hotel Kabul patio, he tells me he has already been here for weeks finalising approval for a three-star hotel. He describes it as a kind of self-sustaining module, minimally dependent on the resources of the city and dropped into the place by a team of skilled workers brought into the country for the purpose. If all goes well, six months from now he will begin planning a five-star hotel.

Perhaps the hotels will service personnel from the 72 different NGOs now in the city?

Akil shrugs. ‘Of course.’

The conference has attracted other opportunistic but cautious investors. Twenty years ago Duane Kissick was an aid worker in Yemen. Now he is the Washington-based President of Planning and Development Collaborative International (Padco). In the heat and dust of Kabul he looks immaculate in a snow-white shirt, well-cut suit and satellite phone. Duane’s company tenders to the UN or to NGOs to facilitate and package Third World projects.

‘Let’s say Kabul needs a new road system,’ he says, ‘and the UN doesn’t have the local knowledge. Padco sends someone in to make it happen. The guy we’ll send in here is fantastic—worked for us in East Timor.’

I’m sharing my room at the hotel with two other women. One is Professor Arlene Lederman, a Jewish New Yorker with a 37-year association with the country.

‘Together we’ll write something about how important this conference is,’ she tells me. ‘You can write and I’m an old Afghan hand.’ She taught at Kabul University in the late ‘60s and is a specialist in the traditional arts of Afghanistan, including carpet-weaving, embroidery, jewellery, leatherwork and woodwork. She is a small, tubby woman whose grey curly hair is streaked with blond. She is also boisterously charming, garrulous and a little deaf so that we have exhaustingly loud conversations across our hotel room.

‘When I first met bin Laden many years ago,’ she shouts at 5.45am from the next bed, ‘he did not even acknowledge me because I was a woman. His relationship with the Taliban is all politics. Do you really think such a rich, upper-class Saudi man would link himself to Mullah Omar if it wasn’t politics? That he would marry his 14-year-old daughter to such an ignorant village bumpkin for any other reason? I’ve been to Kandahar and seen the palace they made for her. How can I describe it? Like marble design painted all over the walls when she was used to the real thing.’

Arlene hops up and comes to stand next to my bed. ‘In the US I founded the Afghanistan Relief Committee which supported Bush’s war against terror because it got rid of the Taliban.’

‘What is at stake in this new great game is oil,’ she adds, in no uncertain terms. ‘Not for the 21st century. By the 22nd century Uzbekistan oil will be absolutely important.’

Arlene’s conference paper is to kindle interest in rebuilding the Chahar Chatta bazaar. The bazaar is part of the history of old Kabul, dating back centuries; a kind of living museum to display the country’s art and craft treasures, but also to provide an on-site workshop where such works are created. By the end of the conference Arlene is ecstatic to be appointed deputy chair of the bazaar-steering committee under the chairmanship of ‘that gorgeous sexy man’, Yousaf Pashtun, Minister for Urban Development. Back in the States she plans to set up the Chahar Chatta Bazaar Foundation.

My other hotel room-mate is Dr Magda Katona, an eccentric Hungarian orientalist with a shock of hair the colour of vanilla yoghurt, a large square jaw and grey teeth tinged with green. She speaks fluent
Russian, as well as one of the local languages, Dari, and humourless gym-instructor English. During the Russian occupation she worked as a translator with the Hungarian embassy but since then has published a book on historical links between Hungary and Afghanistan.

In the late afternoon before dinner, Magda, Arlene and I lounge around the hotel room. We’re talking about the savagery of the Taliban’s treatment of women, the public executions and beatings in the street and the reasons for it. At a UN-Habitat dinner I had sat next to a UN aid worker who had been stationed in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif during the Taliban regime and who claimed that some of what went on under the mullahs was misreported. ‘A lot of women weren’t cowed and brutalised,’ she said. ‘In Mazar there were groups who went fearlessly every day to the Taliban to demand their rights.’

‘I can tell you a story,’ Magda interrupts abruptly. ‘It happened when I was living here before, during the Russians. I was travelling much and my husband also, so I brought from Budapest a governess for my daughter. She was a large woman, very intellectual with advanced training in psychology, a serious person with black-rimmed glasses and thick hair. Together we were here at the Kabul Hotel for a garden party. The Uzbek warlord, General Rashid Dostum was sitting near us. He’d had many women but when he looked at the governess, he combed carefully his moustache. Then he said she must go upstairs to a room and wait for him to come. She would not do it and we explained that she was a serious intellectual. Dostum was just shrugging his shoulders and saying he’d had all kinds of women and now he would try an intellectual. It was because of this situation the governess for safety must leave the country.’

‘It is not for laughing,’ Magda adds sternly, when I begin to chuckle inappropriately at her heavily accented sense of melodrama.

‘I’m telling you,’ Arlene says tactfully, ‘they treat women like animals.’‘Yes, of course,’ agrees Magda.

In the evening we dress up for a party downstairs at the Kabul Hotel. Magda puts on a traditional Pakistani costume in white trimmed with turquoise with a matching headscarf and pale blue sneakers.
In deference to local conservatism, I’m wearing baggy pants, a man’s white shirt down to my knees and my head wreathed in a gold silk scarf. Arlene looks me over.

‘Round here you’re a beauty,’ she tells me. ‘You’ve got a good nose on you, you’re carrying an extra five pounds and you’ve got those blue eyes.’

Arlene says she is too old to be a sex object. Downstairs she flirts successfully with every man in her orbit.

The party is 95 per cent male. Men in suits, ties and business shirts are lined up in rows of lounge chairs listening sedately to a group of traditional musicians. After half an hour, Professor Reinhard Goethert introduces himself.

Dressed in a tweed jacket despite the heat, he has a red genial face and walrus moustache. He is from MIT and one of Samizay’s oldest friends. His paper that day on the squatter camps, ‘the informal settlements’, was both compassionately pragmatic and delivered with the heart of a skilled teacher.
In Kabul and internationally, these settlements are of course huge and growing, he said. They are characterised by a process of progressive urbanisation: what begins as a chaos of refugees develops its own infrastructures, such as informal realtors who help in the orderly subdivision of land, or water sellers or moneylenders who deal in microloans. Helping these settlements means agreeing with the community about the immediate problems. For instance, housing may not be a top priority problem but rather clean water, health, education, employment and transportation. And because squatters would like to be like everyone else, providing an address may be the most important priority.

At the party Professor Goethert and I talk about mementoes of Kabul, in particular the lolly-pink, elasticised toilet paper in the hotel rooms and the bottled water with incomprehensible labels in Russian. ‘My God, I never thought I see myself in Kabul,’ he says.

On the second last day of the conference, the hundred or so delegates divide into four working groups: Urban Management and Planning, Housing and Squatter Settlements, Heritage Conservation, and Infrastructure and Services. We must submit our written suggestions at the last session.

For the first hour of the ‘Housing and Squatter’ group, Afghan men in their ubiquitous suits make interminable speeches in Dari. They are deciding who will chair the group. I slide out the door to meet an aid worker from the UN’s International Organisation of Migration who is to take me on a tour of the squatter camps. Our first stop is Jangalak, formerly a sort of Paddy’s Market of Kabul where you could buy almost anything from antique carpets to car parts. Now the Australian government is renovating two buildings there to house and train 700 returnees. It’s almost finished and one of the foremen insists proudly on showing us around. On the stairs I ask him questions, including one about cost.

‘It is not much for Australia,’ he says scornfully.

‘How much?’

‘Afghans are very good refugees,’ he tells me. ‘They work very hard for themselves and for the country.’

He is the eighth person in five days who has told me this.

On the last day of the conference I return to my working group, which in spite of my misgivings has produced a detailed list of what to do about the informal settlements. At the final session Minister Yousaf Pashtun announces the formation of a steering committee to guide these plans, comprised of local representatives and the expatriate Afghan professionals. As well, a ‘New Vision for Kabul’ website would be set up within weeks, where the rest of us and the world outside can contribute advice, ideas and aid on how to rebuild a city with hard-won optimism and determination.

As Professor Samizay put it: ‘Rebuilding Kabul is like acupuncture. You create bright spots and they radiate along the energy lines of the city.’ 

Dorothy Horsfield is a Canberra writer.



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