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Kabul, A City Stretched Beyond Its Limits

An Afghan boy pushes a wheel on the Naderkhan hill in Kabul, Afghanistan, in May. As more people have crowded to Kabul, the city center has become like a buoy floating in a sea of sprawl.
Ahmad Jamshid
An Afghan boy pushes a wheel on the Naderkhan hill in Kabul, Afghanistan, in May. As more people have crowded to Kabul, the city center has become like a buoy floating in a sea of sprawl.

Kabul was once a relatively lush haven for several hundred thousand residents. But decades of war, migration and chaotic sprawl have turned the Afghan capital into a barely functioning dust bowl.

The tired infrastructure is crumbling under the weight of nearly 5 million people. And 70 percent of Kabul is now a cramped, ad hoc development where water, sewers and electricity are in short supply.

Somehow, life goes on. But the city seems to be nearing its breaking point.

Between the lack of vegetation on the surrounding hills, and the lack of pavement, there is a constant haze of dust hovering above the city. Life is tough, especially in extremely poor areas like Tap-e-maranjan, a densely packed, unplanned neighborhood clinging to a hillside.

"There is no electricity," says Aji Gul, who has lived in the neighborhood the past four years. "There is no water, so we buy it from private businesses."

Aji Gul is a street vendor, struggling to make ends meet. A rugged man in his 50s with reddish-brown skin, he once had a nice house in the city. He spent 10 years in Pakistan to escape the fighting in Kabul, and when he returned, he found he could only afford to live here, in Tap-e-maranjan.

Kabul continues to sprawl in all directions, and a brown haze often hangs over the dusty city.
Sean Carberry / Sean Carberry
Sean Carberry
Kabul continues to sprawl in all directions, and a brown haze often hangs over the dusty city.

He says the government has no plans to help the neighborhood. The residents are trying to tell the government they need services.

"There are a lot of problems here, but we have no choice," he says. "We can't afford to go anywhere else."

Four years ago, he says there were a lot of vacant houses and empty lots here. Now, it's full of people from all over the country.

Some came to escape fighting elsewhere in the country; others came hoping for better opportunities. Seventeen people live in Aji Gul's small two-room house. Some homes here have more than 20 residents.

"The poorest people coming to the city are doubling up in houses because that's the closest they can get to their jobs," says Jolyon Leslie, an architect from South Africa who has been working in Afghanistan for 20 years with various private aid groups. He says people tend to move in with relatives and stay as long as they can.

A Growing Sea Of Sprawl

A hillside near the Nadir Shah Mausoleum — a famous Kabul landmark — provides a unique perspective on Kabul's growth.

The land to the east of the city was once all agricultural.

Now, "as far as the eye can see, it's a kind of low-rise sprawl over towards the mountains, so the entire cityscape has changed," says Leslie.

On the other side of the hilltop, Leslie points out the old city and the old citadel. He describes how it extends over to the north to a blue dome — the Pul-e Khishti. It's a 20th century mosque, but it sits on a very old site.

He says this stretch was at one time the entire city of Kabul.

Now, the city center is like a buoy floating in a sea of sprawl. Leslie says that once a center of culture, commerce, and educated classes, central Kabul more and more resembles a slum. As more poor people have crowded in to be closer to work opportunities, drugs, prostitution and criminality have moved in as well.

Poorly constructed houses cling precariously to hillsides in Kabul. Such neighborhoods often lack electricity and running water.
Sean Carberry / Sean Carberry
Sean Carberry
Poorly constructed houses cling precariously to hillsides in Kabul. Such neighborhoods often lack electricity and running water.

But the scene isn't all bleak. There are some new high-rises going up and neighborhoods where people are renovating their homes. Houses painted in bright pastels and sporting steel frame windows with mirrored glass stand out against the mud-colored houses in the hills.

"There's a very, very clear process of consolidation and gentrification," Leslie says.

He says that people who are living on what is technically seized government land are less worried about being kicked out, so they are investing more in their houses.

"And they're also more prosperous, there's no doubt about it," he says as he points across the hill at a house where workers are building an additional floor. "That money's coming from somewhere — somebody's got a new job, somebody's got a new shop, so it's quite a positive sign in that view."

There is economic growth in the city. There are people who have made a lot of money, working in the security industry or in high-paying jobs with foreign aid organizations.

At the same time, there's plenty of money coming in from corruption and the country's massive opium trade. That's why people refer to the gaudy new multistory mansions springing up around the city as "poppy palaces."

And Leslie says that although many of the hillside houses look well-built from the outside, much of the new construction is extremely shoddy.

He says that when — it's not a matter of "if" — the big Kabul earthquake hits, "it's going to be quite scary depending in the intensity."

"A lot of these buildings that look quite nice are going to come down like a pack of cards," Leslie says.

Government Services Lag

Driving from the hilltop to the city center highlights another of Kabul's challenges — traffic. The mostly unpaved streets are choked with five to 10 times the number of cars they were designed to handle.

On top of that, vendors, beggars, pedestrians, bicycles and donkey carts all compete for space. And there's not a working traffic light in the city. It can take hours to cross from one side of Kabul to the other.

The Chindawol neighborhood in Kabul's Old City is an industrial and residential area.

"Most of the people in this area are shopkeepers," says Haji Khahesta Gul, a shopkeeper himself, selling grains and other dry goods.

Before the Soviets invaded, Chindawol used to be a residential area for educated and elite Afghans. It has also been the main dry food market. Over the years, that's changed. The area has been swarmed by people, mostly illiterate and low-skilled.

Gul, who is in his 50s, says that 10 years ago he had a great business, but it's been deteriorating. He points out that the city has doubled in size in the past decade.

"But still you don't see any fundamental thing that the government has done in the last decade," he says.

Ghalub Nemat understands this all too well. He's a government engineer with the Ministry of Urban Development. He says that 50 percent of the urban population in the entire country is in Kabul, and for the last several decades, the government hasn't kept pace with the growth of the city.

He says that about 70 percent of the Kabul area is informally developed.

"What Kabul municipality is doing, what our ministry is doing, they're trying to control the informal areas," he says. "And the government is not able to do it."

Nemat says to this day there is no central sewage system, barely 25 percent of the people have direct access to potable water, and wide swaths of the city have no or infrequent electricity.

He says the government can't solve these problems, and he hopes the private sector can help fill the gaps. But for now, the private sector seems more focused on catering to the elites, not the masses.

For The Wealthy, New Urban Islands

Increasingly, people like Nemat are moving to new planned developments on the periphery of the city, where there is less pollution.

"There were poets, there were poems, there were so many books written on Kabul, beautiful Kabul," says Nemat. "But I'm not seeing it now."

One of the new communities is Shahrak Aria. It's composed of a couple of dozen five- and six-story, off-white apartment buildings, though there are more phases of development to come. It's a gated, high-end community, designed to be self-sufficient.

Rather than car horns, ice cream vendors or people in the street, you hear periodic airplanes or helicopters flying overhead since it's across the street from the airport.

"There is very good parking, playgrounds for kids, water 24 hours, modern construction, so we're all happy here," says Dr. Mohammed Faridoon, who moved to Shahrak Aria three years ago.

It has its own restaurants and grocery stores, as well as its own water supply and sewage system. By the time the development is complete, there will be thousands of apartments and a shopping mall — people will have to venture from this urban island only to go to work.

"I like this because it is a closed compound, it's very good in terms of security," says Faridoon, who is in his 50s. He says it's quiet and peaceful, unlike his old neighborhood, which was noisy and full of problems.

Ultimately, many with means are looking to escape the chaos of Kabul — to isolate themselves in secure compounds away from the masses struggling to get by. But only a tiny minority can hide out in these gated communities. The rest are stuck trying to survive in a city stretched far beyond its capacity.

NPR's Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sean Carberry is NPR's international correspondent based in Kabul. His work can be heard on all of NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.