Gap between rich and poor widens in Afghanistan
Some buy watches for $4,000, others heat homes with dungDeclan Walsh
Kabul, Afghanistan -- Business is booming, said Hassan Saidzada, a watch shop manager in Kabul's glitziest shopping center. Cabinet ministers, jihadi commanders and newly made tycoons were flocking in, he boasted, waving a hand across a softly lit display of expensive Swiss watches.
AlertNet, June 20, 2005
"We recently had the chief executive of a mobile phone company," he said, straightening his tie. "He bought a Breitling for $4,000."
The emergence of an opulent elite is one sign that much has changed since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Another was the reopening of the Afghan parliament last month, hailed as a step toward stability after a quarter-century of chaos.
But for many Afghans, greater democracy and a more open economy has done little except to increase their impatience and anger.
Malik Shah, a 26-year-old laborer, had been stamping his feet on the freezing sidewalk near the shopping center since dawn, hoping for a day's work that might earn him $4. So far, nothing had come up.
Another 40 men waited beside him, wrapped in wool shawls against the penetrating chill. None had been inside Kabul City Center, the plaza that boasts three floors of heated shops, a cappuccino bar and Afghanistan's first escalator. "They don't allow people dressed like us," said Shah, pointing to his ragged pants.
An angry murmur ran through the crowd. "We just want a chance to work," Shah said. "Isn't that what we were promised?"
The shortcomings of the international reconstruction effort -- a project estimated to cost $8 billion since 2002 -- are apparent as another icy winter closes in on Kabul.
Thousands of refugees have returned to the capital from Pakistan and Iran, but few have found work. Migrant workers like Shah have flooded in from the countryside, looking for jobs that for the most part don't exist. Open sewers run through the streets. The city is choked by giant traffic jams.
The gulf between rich and poor is most acutely apparent in terms of electricity. Most residents have no more than five hours of power every second night, if they are lucky. As temperatures plunge below zero, poor families huddle around wood stoves and make their way to bed by candlelight. In wealthy neighborhoods, diesel generators roar into action.
In his gas-heated office, Ismail Khan, a former warlord and now the new government's energy minister, insisted that progress is being made.
The power grid is being repaired, he said, pointing to colored charts on the wall, and deals have been signed to import 600 megawatts of electricity from neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But building a network of giant pylons to carry power over the steep spine of the Hindu Kush mountains is slow and expensive, he said, and Kabul, with its surging population, will not have full power before 2008.
"We would like to do everything at once, but Afghanistan is a poor country and these projects take time," he said. "I ask people to be patient."
The emergence of a small but lavishly wealthy class of Afghans, some enriched at least in part through corruption and drug trafficking, is straining those expectations. On the rutted streets, luxury jeeps -- essentially four-wheel-drive limousines -- roar past donkey carts and bicycles. A five-star hotel, the Serena, has just opened, and with room prices starting at $275 a night, it caters mostly to wealthy foreigners working for private contracting companies or the United Nations. Kabul City Center, the most luxurious of the new malls, offers three floors of polished chrome and Japanese electronics in a city better known for small, grimy shops and cheap Iranian imports.
Apple iPods and giant flat-screen televisions are on sale at the Suhrab Mobile, across from the Prima Watch store. "Our sales are split 50-50 between foreigners and Afghans," said salesman Farooq Shah.
The most controversial pocket of new money is in Sherpur, a neighborhood being built near central Kabul. Originally the site of a Defense Ministry barracks, the Sherpur plots were parceled out to government favorites at a bargain price two years ago. Rows of giant mansions are springing up along the rutted streets. With towering staircases, chiseled balconies and green-mirrored windows, many resemble giant concrete wedding cakes.
"The owners are the ones who killed our people and drank our blood," said Hussain, a construction worker who like many Afghans uses one name. "But at least it is providing us with work."
At the same time, a severe housing shortage has sent rents soaring, and the poorest residents endure grim conditions. Dozens of families live in the skeleton of an apartment complex on the Darulaman Road in the compound of the deserted Russian Embassy. Many of them said they had moved from a village on the Shomali plain, about 25 miles north of Kabul, in search of work.
Plastic sheets are pinned to empty window frames to block the biting wind. Shrapnel and bullet holes scar the walls. Barefoot children with tangled hair and hacking coughs run through the concrete corridors.
Two children already had died from the cold so far this winter, said Sahib Jamal, a 60-year-old woman with calloused, blackened hands. At night she warms her eight children by making fires of dried animal dung. During the day, they scavenge in the streets for empty soda cans -- 60 cans bring in 40 cents. "That's enough to buy three pieces of bread," she said.
Drugs are fueling much of the new wealth. According to the latest report of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, opium production and smuggling accounted for $2.7 billion, or one-third of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, last year.
There also is a widely held belief that international aid has lined the pockets of the wealthy. Basher Dost, a pulpit-pounding former government minister who gained the second highest number of votes in the September parliamentary election, charges that Western aid has been squandered by overpaid foreign consultants and corrupt Afghan officials.
Western diplomats say his claims are exaggerated but admit he has tapped into a popular concern. "A lot of items on the reconstruction balance sheet are expensive but invisible, like elections or security," said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. "And yes, there is concern about how some money has been spent."
The only way some Afghans see reconstruction money is by begging for it.
Every day Haroun, a 12-year-old with an impish grin and impeccable manners, sells chewing gum in the traffic outside the U.S. military compound in Kabul. So do his three brothers and sister, ages 8 to 13.
"The soldiers are our friends," he said, reeling off names such as "Major Jimmy" and "Captain Kevin."
Every evening the children pool their takings and return to their mud-walled home in a rundown neighborhood of petty crime and open sewers near the city airport.
The main room is heated with a small stove that runs off dried animal dung. The only electrical appliance is a lightbulb that swings over the rug where they eat their daily meal of beans, potatoes and soup.
"Of course I don't want to send them to the streets, especially if they miss school," said their mother, Gul Shah, 35. "But otherwise we will not have enough to eat."
Kabul had improved a lot since the Taliban, she said, but only in the city center where the government is based and mansion dwellers shop -- a perception widely shared among the poor. "So many changes," she mused, preparing for another cold evening. "But none of them have reached here."