Uphill Battle Looms On Path to New Kabul
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 2, 2001; Page A01
KABUL, Afghanistan, Dec. 1 -- They grab at his hand, one after the other, begging, pleading with Abdul Rauf Rashidi to come with them. Please come and see what has happened to our homes. See what has happened to our lives.
The kitchen where Ahmed Jawid Nasrullah used to cook chicken and rice has been reduced to rubble, the sink barely clinging to the wall and filled with debris. The front of Abdul Kaliq's house, the side that faced the sun and seemed so bright, has collapsed into a pile of bricks and stones.
Not far from the battered mud-brick homes in the Qargha neighborhood of Kabul, just up the hill, was a Taliban military post, an antiaircraft battery that was a target for U.S. warplanes. Stray bombs, shrapnel and explosives from an ammunition dump that was hit rained down on the people nearby.
Abdul Rahman, 60, lost his home, three goats and a cow. "How can I repair it?" he cries. ". . . But it's not only my house. It's all over."
Rashidi, who is assessing the damage for the International Committee of the Red Cross, agrees. "Everywhere it is the same," he says.
After 22 years of nonstop warfare, from the disastrous Soviet invasion and the bombardments by rival warlords to civil war with the Taliban and finally a U.S. bombing campaign, Kabul is a city that has been shattered in every way possible. Rebuilding the Afghan capital will be easier said than done.
Only a quarter of the city still has electricity. Water is in short supply and often not safe where available. The woeful telephone system is run by three men hunched over a computer in an otherwise empty 18-story building. There is no mail, no Internet, no air transport, little bus service. Most traffic lights do not work.
Now, as the United States and its allies try to finish the job of dismantling the Taliban, attention is also focused on rebuilding Afghanistan -- and, in particular, its ravaged capital. Donor countries are scheduled to meet in Berlin on Wednesday, and if talks now being held near Bonn on a new Afghan government bear fruit, Afghanistan could receive the first installments of billions of dollars in promised reconstruction aid.
For the international community, this is not simply about charity. The events of the past few months have forged a consensus that when the major powers abandoned Afghanistan following the proxy war between the Soviet Union and the United States, they simply fostered an anarchic state and the conditions that made it a haven for terrorists. This time, foreign leaders have vowed not to walk away after the fight is won.
"The big problem is, can you sustain a situation that now has all the world's attention?" said Daniel Endres, head of the Kabul office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "Now you can virtually move mountains, but can you sustain this support for years which, even in a pacified Afghanistan, we'll need?"
There was a time, maybe a quarter-century ago, when the Afghan capital was a reasonably modern city, at least in the context of Central Asia. But that was before the Soviet occupation and the fighting among rival Islamic militias that reduced most of Kabul to rubble. This city was already in shambles when U.S. and British airstrikes began on Oct. 7, dislodging the repressive Taliban and making way for the capture of the capital by the Northern Alliance. While neighborhoods such as Qargha suffered unintended collateral damage, the airstrikes concentrated on military targets and could hardly destroy what was already destroyed.
"This is not the first time we've experienced this," noted Nasrullah, 22, a former military officer who is trying to repair his house piece by piece. "This is what happens here."
The problem with energy, for instance, dates back to the fighting that brought down the Kremlin-backed communist regime of President Najibullah in 1992. Four of the city's six electrical substations were wrecked then and have never been restored. While the city lost its remaining power during the current U.S.-led bombing campaign, it was only because the Taliban turned it off in vain hopes of hiding from warplanes.
At the Shamar substation in the northern part of the city, Mohammed Nader watches over a wall of dials and switches that looks as if it came straight from a 1950s movie. Even here at one of the city's few power sources, the only heat comes from a couple of small stoves that Nader has plugged into wall sockets.
Nader's substation has to do the work of three -- but does not succeed. "Without the help of the United Nations or some other countries, there's no way for us to repair it," said Nader, 55, a small man with a white beard and a sad smile who has worked here for 30 years. "We use the wires in the city but they do not work very well. All the network has to be changed."
According to government figures, the city's electrical system produces just 67 megawatts of power, compared with the 122 megawatts once available. By comparison, Washington's two power plants produce 806 megawatts, according to the U.S. Department of Engery.
Kabul has prioritized customers, trying to guarantee 24-hour service to important buildings such as government ministries, hospitals, factories, pumping stations and radio and television stations, while providing power to homes from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m. And that's just for those who are hooked up to the system. Most people are not.
Also not hooked up is a modern water facility that was built by the Oxfam humanitarian group in 1998 but never operated because of a lack of electricity. The abandoned wells could provide water to about 350,000 people, and international aid groups are trying to revive the project but must first lay 12 miles of high-tension power lines.
Without the facility, residents have had to rely on a patchwork of municipal water lines and wells, but pumps have decayed and the water table is contaminated. The U.S. bombing cut off a major pipeline that Afghan workers managed to patch, and few of the most serious problems with the water supply stem from the attack.
Problems with basic communication also have been exacerbated by the most recent warfare. The telephone office where residents could go to make international calls has been closed since the Taliban fled Kabul on Nov. 13; overseas mail has likewise been cut off since Pakistan closed the border to delivery trucks and other transport after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
But those services were spotty to begin with, thanks to the civil war of the early 1990s. Even before the U.S.-led airstrikes began, Kabul had just 26,000 subscriber telephone lines, compared with 873,000 in Washington, a city with a smaller population. Of those, perhaps 14,000 are working today, though not well.
"We don't actually know how many work because so many parts of Kabul have been destroyed," said Kramudin Nesar, 27, the director of switching for the Communications Ministry.
The entire western part of the city has been without telephones since a switching station there was damaged eight or nine years ago. But on Oct. 16, a U.S. bomb added to the troubles when it hit a critical antenna on a mountain 35 miles east of Kabul, knocking out international dialing from regular phones.
The command center for this telecommunications network is in a third-floor office in a downtown ministry building whose 17 other stories have been virtually abandoned. Nesar and a handful of other engineers set up a table with three computers and some cushions on the floor to sleep at night as they attempted to maintain what little phone service remains. "There is no one to guide us, no one to help us," Nesar said.
The full scope of the damage in Kabul can be seen in the city's Darulaman section, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting and perhaps the worst devastation of more than two decades of war. A house-by-house street battle in the mid-1990s between two Afghan militias left nothing intact.
The view is almost apocalyptic: block after block of bombed-out, shelled, crumbling buildings, with the twisted wreckage of cars strewn about like rags. In many houses, the roofs are gone, allowing the sun to shine through the ruins. In others, the wall on one side has been peeled away, revealing the interior like a giant dollhouse.
The people of Qargha have it only somewhat better. They still live in their houses, even some that have been bombed, as long as the damage was not too severe.
Most of the damage in Qargha was caused by the destruction of an ammunition dump, which sent rockets and explosives streaking into the neighborhood. But Abdul Kaliq, 43, said his home was hit by a rocket fired by a U.S. helicopter chasing Taliban fighters who were fleeing the city three weeks ago.
Asked if the Americans owed him anything, Kaliq said: "They destroyed our home. They should rebuild it." But he and his neighbors showed strikingly little bitterness toward the United States -- as long as it helps reconstruct Kabul.
"We're not upset with the Americans," said Mira Jahn, 55, who is working to repair his cracked house. "We're upset with our own people. They didn't have anything in their heads."
"The Americans didn't do this, the Taliban caused this," Kaliq agreed. "We excuse America. Just make a good government for us. If they help us as they promised, we will be happy. If not, then we'll have another Taliban."
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