Afghan streets get overdue facelift

 

Kabul, Afghanistan

On an ordinary weekday, the streets of Kabul are choked with traffic, fetid with clogged drains and crammed with carts displaying potatoes or used sweaters. Shoppers, school children and commuters on bicycles dodge and dart through the hazardous maze, often taking their lives in their hands.

As bad as that is, the ordeal just got much worse.

For the past two months, bulldozers and backhoes have been tearing up dozens of busy city streets, gouging deep gulches for new drainage pipes and dumping piles of gravel, dirt and tangled steel bars in the middle. Workmen swarm between lines of traffic, hopping in and out of ditches and shouting through the din.

The ambitious, $45 million project — financed largely by the government of Japan and supervised by the Kabul mayor's office — will eventually produce 60 miles of smooth pavement and modern drainage in an aged, war-savaged capital where the population has exploded from 2 million to 5 million in the past decade. For now, though, it has produced mostly chaos and complaints.

"I can't sleep at night because the machines are so loud, and I can't breathe during the day because of all the dust," said Mir Hazrat, 70, the caretaker of a mosque in the Qalai-Fatullah district. He and his friend Fahim Hasibullah, a legless land-mine victim in a wheelchair, spend their days on the sidewalk, watching the work inch ahead. "I just pray they get done before the snow comes," Hazrat says darkly.

The tumult is most intense along the 10-block commercial stretch between Qalai-Fatullah and Shar-i-Nau, which is lined with a hodgepodge of bakeries, barbers, fish markets, plumbing suppliers and fashion boutiques with mannequins in sequined gowns. Beggars, phone-card hawkers and onion-cart pushers complete the tableau, squeezing between stuck cars and mountains of rubble.

Mohammed Ismael, 65, owns a stylish real estate office on one of the worst-hit blocks. With no customers, he spent last week watching workmen pound metal struts into the ditch below his doorstep. "They should have done this years ago," he said. "Now the foreigners are leaving, business is dead, and I can't find a place to park my car."

Like every project here, the street work has created an economic pyramid that reflects the stark stratification of Afghan society today. At the bottom are the jump-suited laborers, some in their 60s, who earn about $8 per day digging ditches and carrying loads. Many said they were jobless before the project started.

"I feel very lucky to have this job," said Mohammed Karim, 38, leaning on his shovel. He said he left school after third grade, and has been working with his hands ever since. He spent years doing construction in Iran, but his visa expired last year and he was deported. His wife and six children live in northern Afghanistan's Takhar province, and he takes a bus to see them once a month. "I bring them money to buy food, and then I come back," he said.

Further up the ladder are the crew managers, safety inspectors and site engineers, who wear bright yellow vests and carry clipboards. They include Afghan university students working part-time and Pakistanis who have been brought by contractors because there are still not enough skilled Afghans to do technical tasks, even after a decade of international aid and education programs.

The safety officers and traffic police at each work site have a nearly impossible job. In a capital full of powerful men with big Land Cruisers and guns, asking aggressive drivers to wait for a bulldozer or take a detour can be futile.

"We get cursed a lot. I get in arguments with drivers and bodyguards all the time," said Mowahid Anwari, 29, an engineer at the Qalai-Fatullah site. "It's the government officials that give us the most trouble. They insist on getting through, and they don't allow us to get the work done."

Sometimes the men in SUVs are construction contractors, members of the new Kabul elite with offices in posh districts where the streets were paved long ago. They tour the work sites several times a day, jumping out with bodyguards at their sides and barking orders on walkie-talkies as they clamber over dirt piles in shined shoes.

The intellectual godfather of the project is an Afghan of the old school, a gray-bearded engineer and deputy mayor named Abdul Ahad Wahid. Pointing to the city maps covering his office walls, he insists there is method in the madness that has turned parts of the capital — which was nearly destroyed during the civil war of the 1990s — into a combination strip mine, slalom course and battle zone.

But Wahid has little time to explain the finer points of Kabul's master plan, which is gradually transforming the city's infrastructure with support from Japan and the World Bank. He is too busy juggling work delays, traffic jams and a hundred other problems that arise when a small army of men and machines invades a densely crowded city and tries to shut down dozens of streets.

"The population has grown so fast that the entire city is congested. We have no alternative routes where we can send the traffic," Wahid said. As a result, the project keeps falling behind schedule. "We are pushing the contractors really hard," he said. "I told them we have to finish before winter. If they work two day shifts and one at night, maybe we will get it done by then."

The abysmal state of Kabul's many dirt streets, which turn to dust in summer and mud in winter, has been a source of public criticism for years. But now that they're finally being improved, Wahid said, "we get nothing but complaints. In the past two years we've paved 400 miles of road, built five bridges and the first flyover in Afghanistan, and still nobody's happy."

Nazir Mohammed, 40, has worked at his family barber shop in Qalai-Fatullah for half his life. He has seen civil war destroy the street, and Taliban repression empty it. He, too, is unhappy about the mess outside his shop, and he fears the improvement will do little to salvage the city's economy as foreign troops, aid and investment flee.

But like many Afghans, Mohammed has the resourceful instincts of a survivor. He has kept the twinkling lights turned on above his shelves of shaving cream and cologne, and he has laid a wooden plank over the abyss between his doorway and the street, just in case.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
techResearchers recover 100s of nude photos from second-hand smartphones
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Digital Marketing,London

To £58k Contract 12 months: Charter Selection: Major household name charity se...

Network Support Engineer / Junior Test Analyst

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: A market leading, in...

Key Account Manager, Medical

£35000 per annum, Benefits: Excellent commission structure + Car: Charter Sele...

Key Account Manager, Medical

£35000 per annum, Benefits: Excellent commission structure + Car: Charter Sele...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice