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The question in Kabul: to rebuild or start afresh?

By Gretchen PetersSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2003



KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Three decades of almost constant war and crushing poverty have left much of the Afghan capital in a pitiable, almost uninhabitable state. Instead of rebuilding it, argue top Afghan leaders, why not start anew?

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The plan goes like this: leave some of the most shattered neighborhoods as a silent monument to the horrors of war, and use millions of dollars of pledged foreign aid money to create a new Kabul on largely empty land to the north of the present-day city.

The original Kabul will hardly disappear for good, top officials involved in the planning phase insist. "Since the old Kabul is a souvenir of our forefathers and a symbol of our heritage, we do want to save it and rebuild," says Amin Farhang, the minister of reconstruction.

But with refugees flooding back from neighboring Pakistan and Iran, he adds, "the population of Kabul is increasing day by day, and we need more space and more houses for people to live in."

As in other cities around the world that were largely destroyed in wars or by natural disasters, there is controversy over how to shape Kabul's future.

Some European cities - like Warsaw and Frankfurt - meticulously rebuilt entire neighborhoods as they had stood before World War II. Other places, like Hiroshima, Berlin, and London, left bombed-out buildings amid reconstructed neighborhoods so the residents would never forget what happened there.

In Kabul, residents, too, are divided. Some remember the days when its peaceful streets were lined with colorful bazaars, fine old homes, and leafy trees that swayed in the breezes blowing off nearby snow-capped mountains.

Called the "Paris of the East," Kabul was a popular stopping-off point with travelers in Asia, who raved about its fine architecture and charming ambience.

"This is our fathers' town, our grandfathers' town and it was their fathers' town before that," says Managarai Fawadi, a policeman patrolling the rubble-lined streets of Darul Aman, the southwestern district of Kabul that was largely reduced to ruins. "It may be a disaster, but it is a reminder of our history. We never want to forget it or leave it."

The hullabaloo is such that city officials refuse to discuss actual plans, saying the idea is still in its formulation phase.

"These are still only thoughts and plans," says Mayor Mohammed Anwar Jekdelek. "They may not ever go through."

But urban planners and construction experts argue that something must be done to give residents a livable city. Hospitals and schools function with little or no electricity. Major government offices and housing complexes have gaping holes where rockets crashed through the outer structure.

Plus, with limited aid funds at the Afghan government's disposal, there's growing evidence that rebuilding the worst-hit neighborhoods may cost as much as 50 percent more than simply starting over.

Digging through the rubble to replace damaged sewage and electrical lines isn't cost-effective, especially if there is land available to develop new communities, says Engineer Ahmed Shah, who runs the Freedom Construction Company, a local firm that has already rebuilt roads, bridges, and schools with money from the US government and other sources.

Meanwhile, centuries-old neighborhoods perched on mountains have seen less war damage but are seriously deteriorated and out of date. There's no running water, central sewage, or heating systems and few cables that bring electricity or phone lines.

Another problem in Kabul: none of the city currently has central heating, meaning construction teams would have to submerge gas lines or electrical cables beneath war damaged roadways, which bombs have left structurally insecure.

Many Kabul residents welcome the plan to rebuild, saying gleaming new neighborhoods would help attract much-needed foreign investment for industry and tourism.

"We would benefit from building a whole new city, like they did in Islamabad," Mr. Shah says, referring to the capital of neighboring Pakistan, which was opened in 1963 after the southern city of Karachi became too unwieldy to serve as that nation's federal hub.

"It's a good idea," agrees Jan Mohammed, who repairs metal doors in a building that has half collapsed over his workshop. "The unfortunate days are over, and now it is time to build a new Afghanistan."

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