Afghan Glastonbury brings music to minefield

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More than 170,000 Afghans packed into the country's first pop festival this week, the biggest recreational gathering since the fall of the Taliban almost six years ago and a gig that could have been dubbed Glastonbury Afghanistan. It was a far cry from the misery of suicide bombs and house-to-house fighting and like Glastonbury, it shared an agricultural theme.

While the first ever Glasto rockers were treated to free milk, revellers at the Kabul festival were offered a free introduction to modern farming techniques and the opportunity to meet agri-traders from all over the country. The three-day event, on a reclaimed minefield, was ostensibly an agricultural fair, laid on at a cost of at least $1.5m (£750,000) by USAid, the US government agency which is a leading donor in the country.

But while plenty of people were doing business, most of the men, women and children at the landmark event were simply there to have a good time.

"I came to the fair because I love pop music," said Said Ahmed Rahik, a 17-year-old student from Kabul. "My father told me not to come because he wants me to study all the time. But I came without permission, because there is nowhere else to see music like this in Kabul." Headline acts included the winners of Afghan Star, the country's fledgling Pop Idol show, circus performers, stand-up comedians and traditional Afghan folk singers.

Marianne Walimi, 27, a photographer from Kabul, said: "Always Afghanistan has been at war. It is good to have something like this for a change. It is really fun."

The festival was housed on a farm. But Badam Bagh, in the northern suburbs of Kabul, has not been turned over entirely to music. Originally a government site, the 57-hectare farm fell into disrepair during three decades of war. It was mined, fought over, and eventually claimed by Kabul's dog fighters. The government reclaimed the land last year and invested $1m clearing more than 50 unspent munitions.

"It took a week to clear each mine," said Mohammad Haroon Zareef , the site manager. "There were more than 50 small bombs, rockets and mines. We had to clear rocks, build a reservoir, and level the ground. Now it is the biggest party in Afghanistan ... The farmers are coming and learning about new crops and new techniques, but they can have a fun time as well."

While tens of thousands of people danced and sang as the event was broadcast across the country, security was a major concern for the organisers. But the hundreds of soldiers, secret police and private contractors guarding Badam Bagh were not looking for people sneaking in without tickets. The whole event was free. And the festival, which ended last night, passed off without incident, despite the threat from insurgents, even in Kabul, remaining very real.

Organisers claimed that the secret of a peaceful festival was giving more than 300 policemen lunch.

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