Kabul shocks and surprises. Pleasantly surprising is not merely the scenic beauty. What surprises is also the change Kabul has undergone since Taliban days. The city has changed beyond recognition. Instead of thousands of Kabulis cycling dilapidated roads or earthen streets, one witnesses thousands of latest-model cars plying four-lane, newly built Airport Road that connects Kabul Airport to Hotel Intercontinental. Hundreds of recently built structures, mostly marriage halls or housing blocks, line the road all the way.
Centuries-old Bagh e Babur has also been rehabilitated. Lake-side at scenic Kargha valley is thronged by picnicking Kabulis (men). Cinema houses, all shut down by Taliban, now show Indian films. One needs a remote control in hand while sitting before TV sets. There are one dozen channels to choose between. Sitar e Afghan (Afghan vesion of ‘Idol') is a short cut to stardom.
However, my destination on reaching Kabul was not Intercontinental. Having travelled few miles on the Airport Road towards Intercontinental, my friend and host Salman Shah asked the taxi driver to take a rightward-turn. Off the road, as the taxi turned right, we had entered beautifully named neighbourhood Khair Khana (Home of Peace). It was a different world. The unpaved streets and bullet-ridden houses were in marked contrast to the smooth Airport Road surrounded by modern buildings. Taxi costs extra bucks if one wants to go all the way home, off the main road. These extra bucks are meant for the wear and tear of the vehicle plying unpaved streets. My host Salman Shah, lives here in a ($ 1400-a-month) rented home with his large family. Shah family is what constitutes Kabul's middle class. Five of Salman's six sons are working with international NGOs while youngest son and his only daughter go to Kabul University.
Despite a steady income---all five sons religiously submit salaries to their Abai (mother)---Shah family hardly lives a life deemed comfortable. It is particularly hard for the women who bear the brunt when everything about urban life is in short supply. There is paucity of water. During winter, one has running water for three hours a week. In summer, with hike in water consumption, water supply would become even erratic. Electricity is a three-hour affair if one is lucky. Only 6 % have access to electricity. Gas-connections non-existent. Food prices are sky-high. In Ghazni province, people have been eating dry grass since food crisis has worsened. For women in Shah family, all this tantamount to a daily drudgery in dispensing with household chores that begin as the dawn breaks.
Men want their dresses ironed since all work in posh offices and are dress-conscious. Hence, when men are making themselves ready, Salman's daughter, Bareen, is busy ironing their dresses. In line with the old saying: necessity is the mother of invention, an electric iron is heated on a small gas cylinder to flatten the wrinkles in clothes. Inside kitchen, Laima, one of the daughters-in-law, is struggling to make as much use of oven as possible. Small iron pails full of water are put inside the oven besides the bread. Than Laima runs with these iron pails to the bath-rooms. Men use the water to shave and wash face. When the breakfast is over, Sultana, eldest daughter-in-law, gathers over two dozen utensils and move them to courtyard where water is stored in big tanks. Though it is sunny, but ice cold out in the courtyard. temperature is below zero. Here, she will rinse the utensils encrusted with left-overs. Ice cold water cuts through the fingers.
Still every single drop of water should be saved. They have a hand pump just outside their house. But water from this hand pump is hard. One can not use it either for dish washing or laundry. Not even for taking a bath. It is good only for toilets. And toilets by the way are worst nightmare. Toilets consist of small room, three feet above the ground level, built in a corner of the courtyard with a small window in the outer wall opening in the street. A deep hole in the ground is dug. Whole family defecates in that whole. Once a week, a sweeper comes and removes the faeces. The sanitation does not exist in most of the Kabul neighbourhoods. Across Afghanistan, hardly 8 percent have access to sanitation facilities.
Since streets are not paved. When snow disappears, dirt streets spread lot of dust. The clothes get dirty once one goes out. Hence, there is lot of laundry for women to do. Laundry is often postponed till there is running water.
While there is no specific time for running water, it may delay for a day or so, therefore, all the women are on red alert for like two days. As soon as the only tap, which is in the courtyard, begins vomiting water, a big drill begins. Abai gets busy boiling water in samovar since clothes, unlike crockery, cannot be rinsed in cold water. Husna begins rinsing dirty linens in a bucket. In the backyard, Jamila is busy putting buckets of water in another samovar. This is the weekly chance for women to bath. Meantime, with a water pipe, Laima will be running to bath rooms, kitchen and toilet to fill every possible tank, bucket and empty bottle to store water.
Daaily chores make it hard for Husna and Salma to continue their studies. They go to an English-language and computer courses respectively. Bit unusual in Afghanistan. Girls, once married, are almost never allowed to continue their studies. 84 % of them are unable to read and write compared to 69 perent men. Though Karzai administration keep boasting about two million girls registered at schools and colleges. Shah family, however, is liberal in view of Afghan standards. But even for a liberal like Salman Shah, watching romantic Indian TV soaps, popular like anything, in the presence of his daughter or daughters-in-law is inappropriate. The TV is, by the way, only entertainment, besides Afghan politics, available to ordinary Afghan families, particularly women. However, women working for tv do it at the risk of their lives. Zakia Zaki was killed in June 2007 while Nlofer Habibi was stbbed in heart only recently on May 15.
As the sun sets, life comes to a grinding halt in Kabul owing to power cut. ‘Under Taliban, we had electricity for two hours a day', Abai recalls . Those who afford generators, turn the TV sets on. The men in Shah family gather in front of TV in Salman's room and discuss politics. Security situation, haphazard reconstruction and corruption are the issues dominating their discussions.
Security is biggest challenge. The warlords have taken the people of Afghanistan as hostage while in so called ‘war on terror', 6000 people were killed in 2007.Besides 220 foreigners, there were 1000 Afghan troops and rest of them were mostly civilians.Similarly, 600 people, 50-a-month at average, were killed only in landmines last year. A big part of Afghanistan is still not demined.
It is true, that corruption is a big drain. But then $ 10 billion out of $ 25 billion, global community pledged to rebuild Afghanistan in 2001, has not been delivered. Again, 40 percent of what was delivered, went back to donor countries as corporate profit and fat salaries drawn by their staff working here in Afghanistan. This is what a latest report by a coalition of NGOs, called Acbar, says.
Here they are served their dinner too. Only Abai joins the men. Rest of the women have a TV of their own in the living room, next to the kitchen. Since petrol is expensive, hence, generator is not used more than three hours. During these three hours, women would serve dinner and have their own dinners in front of TV. Often, one of them, serving men, does not get the chance to see a whole part of some soap. She inquires, to catch up with proceedings, from others.
One day, a picnic was planned at Bagh e Babur, basically for my sake. This was the first time for Shah family, especially women, to visit Bagh e Babur. Not that women in this family are extra oppressed. But for an Afghan family, an outing like this is beyond their monthly budget. In case of women, security situation and sexual harassment makes it even difficult to go out. Sexist remarks, body invasions, obscene gesture await any girl venturing outside her home. Though no woman wears burka in this family---though all women cover their head when they leave home---yet (blue) burka-clad women outnumber those going unmasked. True the situation is not comparable with Taliban-era dark ages yet women in Kabul have not regained even a fraction of liberties they used to enjoy during 1970s and 1980s.
Eighty percent woman suffer domestic violence, 60 percent are coerced into forced marriages while half of them are married before reaching the age of 16. Self immolation, of late, has become a common practice among desperate Afghan women seeking an escape from harsh Afghan life.
‘All those women removing their burkas in front of cameras soon after US invasion were doing it for two dollars', Bareen, told me. ‘Mostly it was poor women. They would get two dollars from western journalists to remove burka in front of camera. Journalists would get a scoop. Afghan women would get meal for their hungry kids', she explains. Well, such is life, at least in Kabul under US jackboots.