Afghans hope to make dusty Kabul bloom

The Afghan capital used to be shady and green, but war and a need for fuel decimated the city's trees. Now the city government is trying to bring them back.

Tom Peter
A tree is planted on a street in Kabul, Afghanistan.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

As spring arrives in Kabul, its fiercely independent residents are coalescing around a singular development: the arrival of trees.

This war-racked capital has long had a distinctly khaki hue, though it was not always thus: More than a few older residents can recall shady green boulevards that offered them respite from the glaring sun. That was before Soviet occupiers axed countless trees to deny militants cover in the 1980s, and residents desperate for fuel during the ruinous economy of the Taliban years scavenged much of what remained.

But in March, Kabul’s energetic new mayor, Muhammad Younus Nawandish, decided it was time to let a million saplings bloom. And residents – much to the surprise of some in this congested, fractious city of 5 million – have embraced the idea, even though it demands a bit of sweat equity on their part.

The plan is simple. “We told shopkeepers, if you can afford a tree, you should buy it and put it in front of your shop,” says Mohamed Ishaq Samadi, spokesman for the Kabul municipality, which is organizing the million-plant purchase. “If you can’t afford it, we’ll give it to you free – but you need to take care of it.”

Shah Agha, a dress seller, says that he has planted two trees in front of his shop. “We didn’t know that we are allowed to put trees on the sidewalk,” he says, noting approvingly that they’re attractive as well as good for the environment. “Now that we know that, we might also put in some flowers.”

The only guidance has been to avoid fruit trees. “Kids will rip off an entire branch just to get the fruit,” points out Mr. Samadi.

One resident marvels that the once-barren median of his neighborhood’s main thoroughfare is now filled with saplings. A nearby street corner – which just a few weeks ago offered only Kabul’s thick and ubiquitous dust – now sports five rows of trees, each four deep. In a sign that green is good for commerce, he says, a vendor has started selling his spices nearby.

To Samadi, it is a sign of hope – and long-term investment. “Right now, you can’t see a great change because all the trees are still saplings. But in a few years? It will make a big difference. And next year, if we ask [homeowners] to plant one tree in front of the door, we will have a very beautiful city.”

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