Above the streets, satellite dishes peek out from rooftops. At the soccer stadium where the Taliban once staged public stonings of alleged adulterers, painters prepare the grounds for a youth tournament.
Still, residents say, the outward trappings mask entrenched problems, from lack of jobs to street crime. Many said they personally knew someone whose motorbike, car or other property had been stolen, often at gunpoint. Zahir Jan, 35, a stadium painter, said he longed to find a better job but would be satisfied with the government if it weren't for the kidnappings.
Afghans gather outside a hospital in Kandahar, where a roadside bomb killed five people and injured more than 30.
(Noor Khan -- AP)
"Imagine how things are, that we are wishing for the Taliban again," he muttered.
Khalid Pashtoon, a spokesman for Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai, said reports of kidnappings were greatly exaggerated. In most cases, he said, children reported missing had merely wandered off.
"Sometimes people in Kandahar get confused," Pashtoon said. "They've been raised amid continuous fighting, and they have a very pessimistic mindset. . . . But most of this is just rumor." As for the street protest last week, Pashtoon said there were signs that members of a Taliban splinter group were involved.
Khan Mohammed, the police chief, said that since he took office six months ago, the number of robberies in Kandahar has dropped dramatically. "If before we had five to 10 robberies a week, now that's what we have in a month," he said.
Mohammed said that apart from the two boys killed recently, the police had received "no reports of kidnappings at all" and had made no arrests. But several residents said they personally knew of other children who had been kidnapped for ransom.
Members of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission noted that many kidnappings may not be reported to police. The logbooks at Kandahar's independent radio station indicated that it had received 10 to 15 requests per month to broadcast reports of missing persons, most of them children. But the station does not keep track of the circumstances of each child's disappearance or whether they are found.
Whatever the facts may be, there is a widespread perception here that children are frequently kidnapped. Furthermore, some people suggested that instead of tracking down the culprits, the police themselves may be involved. Mohammed, the chief, categorically denied the accusation, and no residents could provide hard evidence. Instead, they pointed to suspicious circumstances.
Abdul Qader, for example, said a friend's young son had been kidnapped several months ago and then released. "Now, every time that boy sees men in uniform, he becomes afraid," Qader said. "Why would he act that way unless some officials were involved?"
Then there was Qader's own experience with the police. He did not report his son's disappearance, he said, because he believed the police would not help him. Instead, he broadcast appeals for information on television and radio.
After news of his son's death became public, Qader said, the governor called him in for a meeting. Qader said Shirzai promised to track down those responsible. Instead, he said, national intelligence police arrested one of Qader's cousins and two of his brothers.
Pashtoon said police had obtained evidence that one of the brothers, who remained in custody, was a member of an organized crime gang from Pakistan. Qader said that the charges were baseless and that, after two weeks, he finally persuaded the police to release his brother.
"The governor said he would help me, but instead he caused me even more pain," Qader said.