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In Kabul, a Stark Gulf Between Wealthy Few and the Poor

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 9, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Displayed under fluorescent lights on a spotless marble floor, the imported refrigerators, dishwashers and ovens at the new Beko store draw a steady stream of gawkers in a city where nearly everything is coated with grime. But few Afghans can afford such luxury appliances -- or the electricity to run them.

"A lot of people come in and they really, really want to buy these kinds of products," said Baki Karasu, 41, who opened the store this fall. "But they don't have any power. If they have a big generator, they can buy. But if they don't, they have to wait for the government to provide the electricity."

Four years after the ouster of the Taliban, as another frigid winter begins, most residents of the Afghan capital are without power, except for five hours every second or third night. Although hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid have been spent to fix the problem, conditions have worsened in the past year as improvements have lagged and the population surges. Government officials say things will not noticeably improve until at least 2008, when new power lines are to be completed.

The gulf between the wealthy few and the literally powerless majority is especially striking now, as pockets of opulence sprout across the impoverished capital of 4 million after a quarter-century of war that left much of the city in ruins. Downtown, there is a glittering new shopping mall as well as a five-star hotel where regular rooms go for $250 a night and the Presidential Suite fetches $1,200.

There is also Sherpur, a central neighborhood that once contained an army barracks surrounded by poor squatters' huts. Two years ago, it was taken over by government officials. The huts were razed and the land parceled out to people with money and connections. Now, dozens of mansions are being built there.

Unlike typical Afghan homes, which have muted colors, simple materials and shrouded windows, the new houses seem designed to attract attention with vivid tiles, elaborate balconies and ornate columns. A 10-foot-high eagle statue perches on one roof, wings outstretched.

Such displays have elicited both admiration and resentment from ordinary Afghans, many of whom believe they have been financed through ill-gotten means, including the lucrative opium poppy trade, misuse of aid funds and schemes controlled by former militia leaders who still wield power in many regions.

"These homes make the city look beautiful, but the people here got their money not from the legal way," observed Zarifullah Hayatullah, 18, a student who was riding his bike past a row of mansions one recent day. "All the well-off people can live here -- especially the commanders who got their money through drugs."

Across the city, in a dilapidated district called Daimazang, live those on the dark side of Afghanistan's economic fortunes. Although the country's gross domestic product has doubled since 2001, roughly 30 percent of the population is unemployed, and 37 percent need donated food to survive, according to statistics compiled by the Brookings Institution in Washington. In Daimazang, 65 families have taken up makeshift residence in the carcasses of former government office buildings that were destroyed by rocket attacks in the civil war of the 1990s. Most were refugees in Pakistan and Iran who returned home after 2001, lured by promises of jobs and land that never materialized.

Each family has partitioned off a 10-foot-square space with mud-brick walls on all sides. Several have strung plastic tarps for protection from the rain and snow, but many have nothing to separate themselves from the sky. There is no electricity and no firewood, either; the price of wood has doubled to about $1 for 12 pounds, far more than they can pay.

"We just have a blanket," said Hazrat Gul, 45, who makes $4 a day breaking stones for construction in the mountains that surround Kabul. "During the night, we get under the blanket and we try to sleep."

Mohammed Agha, a father of five who works as a bicycle mechanic, said he was afraid not everyone in the community would survive the winter. In the past few months, two children have died. "All of the children are suffering. They are all coughing from pneumonia," said Agha, his own voice hoarse with the disease.

None of the residents interviewed said they had been to the new mall or hotel downtown, but Qurban, a 56-year-old cabdriver who uses only one name, said he had seen them many times from the outside.

"I tried to go in, but they wouldn't allow me," Qurban said, pointing to his tattered sweater and dusty jacket. "These buildings are not for poor people like me. These buildings are for the rich people and the ministers. It's for them. It's not for us."

The Daimazang residents said officials had come several times and told them they must leave because the government wants to rebuild the old offices, which belonged to the Ministry of Energy. Gulla Jan Hairan, the ministry's director of planning, said rehabilitating damaged and destroyed facilities has been a top priority over the past four years. When the Taliban abandoned Afghanistan in 2001, he said, most of the cities were "almost completely dark" after years of war and neglect.

Since then, Hairan said, there has been major progress in cities such as Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz, which forged agreements with neighboring Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to import energy. But he conceded that Kabul has been a much tougher challenge.

The Hindu Kush mountain range that rises north of Kabul cuts off the capital from energy-rich neighbors to the north and west. Rivers flow down vigorously from those mountains in the spring, but they tend to dry up in the late summer and fall, leaving a current too weak to effectively generate hydroelectric power for the winter.

Over the past year, Hairan said, the relative supply of electricity for homes in Kabul has gone down because, despite the rehabilitation of several power plants, the infrastructure still cannot keep up with the massive influx of new residents.

"If we do not increase the generating capacity and we continue to connect more homes and buildings, it's certain that the conditions will get worse next year," he said.

Energy experts here said the situation would not improve until October 2008, when power lines from Uzbekistan, now being laid across the snow-capped Hindu Kush, are expected to be completed.

One short-term solution would be to set up a network of diesel-powered generators. But Hairan said the high cost of fuel makes that idea impractical and foreign donors, who have already committed nearly a billion dollars toward improving the public power supply, seem reluctant to provide even more.

Diesel generators are exactly what keep the lights on in the new Kabul City Centre Mall, the luxury Serena Hotel and the mansions of Sherpur. A one-kilowatt generator costs at least $80, and diesel fuel costs about $4 per gallon. Inside Kabul City Centre, power runs 24 hours a day, keeping the escalators running, the coffee brewing and the temperature comfortable.

One recent day, several mall-goers said they were there only to escape the near-freezing weather outside. Wahid Afshar, 25, jobless since he returned from Iran this year, said he was visiting the mall just to pass the time and dream.

"It's chic and modern and beautiful," he said. "But I can't afford to buy anything."

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