In Depth

Once called paradise, now Kabul struggles to cope

KABUL (Reuters) - The empire of Babur, the 16th century founder of the Mughal dynasty, stretched from Samarkand to central India, but he died pining for Kabul and insisting on being buried in the place he called paradise on earth.

Afghan boys carry water on a hilltop in Kabul April 15, 2007. There is little piped water and roads are mostly unpaved. Bombed-out and bullet-pocked buildings are common, piles of plastic bottles litter the Kabul River, and street are jammed with cars that raise clouds of dust and exhaust fumes. Picture taken April 15, 2007. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

His open-air tomb on a hillside in what is now the capital of Afghanistan is set in an oasis of greenery. With the snow-fringed Hindu Kush ranges providing a majestic backdrop, the tomb is set amidst a garden of walnut, mulberry, apple and pomegranate trees as well as a small marble mosque, fountains and water channels.

But the views below are far from paradise. These days the tomb overlooks a war-ravaged city of about four million people, dusty and choked with garbage.

There is little piped water and roads are mostly unpaved. Bombed-out and bullet-pocked buildings are common, piles of plastic bottles litter the Kabul River, and street are jammed with cars that raise clouds of dust and exhaust fumes.

“It has the highest amount of fecal matter in the atmosphere in the world,” said Pushpa Pathak, a senior adviser to the Kabul municipality. “Less than five percent of households have sewage systems.

“If you are awake at 4 a.m., you can hear the donkey carts taking shit out of the city.”

This ancient method of cleaning dry toilets is crumbling because the farms that used the waste as fertilizer are getting further and further away due to the speed at which the city is expanding.

As late as the 1970s, Kabul was an enchanting little city, with gardens, trees, quaint bazaars, and magnificent mosques and palaces.

“It was the Switzerland of the east,” says Pathak. “People used to honeymoon here.”

Ten years of Soviet rule, the battles for liberation and then a devastating civil war brought ruin and destruction. International isolation during the rule of the Taliban and the war to oust them followed.

The first to go were the trees -- cut down for fuel or because successive warlords feared they could provide cover for enemies.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

“No road leading out of Kabul has any trees today,” says Pathak.

Intensive artillery bombardment of the city from adjoining hills marked the civil war, reducing many of its buildings to rubble. Anything that survived slipped into disrepair.


Since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001 and President Hamid Karzai took over, there has been relative peace, but only marginal improvement in the city.

What was a population of about 700,000 in the 1970s has ballooned to four million, as refugees return and impoverished villagers flock to the city to seek security and employment.

Many built mud houses on the scrub-covered hills around Kabul, with no water, electricity or sewage.

Now, says Pathak, only 10 percent of households have piped water, only half the garbage in the city is picked up and about 50-60 km of roads in the city are in urgent need of repair. Electricity is intermittent even at the best of times.

The U.S.-backed administration receives about $3 billion a year in foreign aid, but urban development is low on the list of priorities -- much of the money is spent on security, rural rehabilitation and alternative employment opportunities to discourage farmers from growing poppies.

Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium in the world and the narcotics trade makes up more than a third of GDP.

Pathak says Kabul needs about $3.5 billion and perhaps 10-15 years to provide basic services to about 60-70 percent of the population -- water, sewage, drainage, electricity and greening of the city. The budget of the municipality for the current 2006-07 financial year is $26 million.

Even if funding gets available, Kabul will never again be the quaint city of the 1970s, she says.

“You should never look back, you should look forward,” she remarked. “You should see what you can do with what you have got and make it better.”


Just a few years ago, it would have been difficult to believe Babur’s burial spot, ravaged by war and neglect, was the prototype for the scores of Mughal gardens across India and Pakistan.

The red sandstone and marble tomb to his son, Humayun, is set in one in India’s capital New Delhi. Another descendant, Shahjahan, built the Taj Mahal in Agra.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture began the multi-million dollar rehabilitation of Bagh-i-Babur, or Babur’s garden, in 2002, clearing up debris, rebuilding fountains and water channels, and planting trees.

One of the first tasks was to rebuild the Pakhsa mud and straw wall which encircles the 11-hectare garden to prevent encroachment. About a third of the funds are being used by the Trust to improve conditions for the people who live on the hillside, says project manager Jolyon Leslie.

“We hope it will become beautiful again,” said the garden’s site architect Abdul Hameed. “But I don’t know. There has to be peace for the next 10-20 years.”

The marble tablet above the grave says “Paradise is forever the abode of Babur Badshah.”