For the past two months, bulldozers and backhoes have been tearing up dozens of busy city streets, gouging deep gulches for new drainage pipes and dumping piles of gravel, dirt and tangled steel bars in the middle. Workmen swarm between lines of traffic, hopping in and out of ditches and shouting through the din.
The ambitious, $45 million project — financed largely by the government of Japan and supervised by the Kabul mayor’s office — will eventually produce 60 miles of smooth pavement and modern drainage in an aged, war-savaged capital where the population has exploded from 2 million to 5 million in the past decade. For now, though, it has produced mostly chaos and complaints.
“I can’t sleep at night because the machines are so loud, and I can’t breathe during the day because of all the dust,” said Mir Hazrat, 70, the caretaker of a mosque in the Qalai-Fatullah district. He and his friend Fahim Hasibullah, a legless land-mine victim in a wheelchair, spend their days on the sidewalk, watching the work inch ahead. “I just pray they get done before the snow comes,” Hazrat says darkly.
The tumult is most intense along the 10-block commercial stretch between Qalai-Fatullah and Shar-i-Nau, which is lined with a hodgepodge of bakeries, barbers, fish markets, plumbing suppliers and fashion boutiques with mannequins in sequined gowns. Beggars, phone-card hawkers and onion-cart pushers complete the tableau, squeezing between stuck cars and mountains of rubble.
Mohammed Ismael, 65, owns a stylish real estate office on one of the worst-hit blocks. With no customers, he spent last week watching workmen pound metal struts into the ditch below his doorstep. “They should have done this years ago,” he said. “Now the foreigners are leaving, business is dead, and I can’t find a place to park my car.”
Like every project here, the street work has created an economic pyramid that reflects the stark stratification of Afghan society today. At the bottom are the jump-suited laborers, some in their 60s, who earn about $8 per day digging ditches and carrying loads. Many said they were jobless before the project started.
“I feel very lucky to have this job,” said Mohammed Karim, 38, leaning on his shovel. He said he left school after third grade, and has been working with his hands ever since. He spent years doing construction in Iran, but his visa expired last year and he was deported. His wife and six children live in northern Afghanistan’s Takhar province, and he takes a bus to see them once a month. “I bring them money to buy food, and then I come back,” he said.
Further up the ladder are the crew managers, safety inspectors and site engineers, who wear bright yellow vests and carry clipboards. They include Afghan university students working part-time and Pakistanis who have been brought by contractors because there are still not enough skilled Afghans to do technical tasks, even after a decade of international aid and education programs.