Out of the ashes
Swooping into Kabul on Tuesday's 10am Ariana Afghan Airlines flight from Urumqi, the only flight each week from China, all eyes were peeled for the 'Ariana Graveyard'. Said to line the ramshackle airport's single runway - rebuilt with Japanese aid following the United States' 'Operation Enduring Freedom' that ousted the hardline Islamic Taleban regime in 2001 - the graveyard is a collection of burned-out aircraft and helicopters amassed during 23 years of war, starting with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
It was impossible to spot the graveyard of gutted aviation memorabilia. Perhaps its rusting hulks have been cut up by scavenging scrap dealers and hauled away in old, worn-out and belching trucks imported from Pakistan. Perhaps Hamid Karzai, the first elected president in the mysterious, landlocked nation's history, ordered the skeletal remains removed as Kabul struggles to shake off its hard-earned reputation as 'paradise wrecked'.
More likely, the planes' graveyard is still there, but simply invisible. Ground-level Kabul is engulfed in a dense haze of dust, smoke and diesel fug. Kabul is blessed with one of the most physically beautiful and dramatic natural settings on the planet. Nestled within the picturesque Kabul River Valley, and ringed by towering, snow-capped mountains on all sides, for centuries it was celebrated as an opulent and tranquil oasis characterised by leafy parks, tree-lined boulevards, fertile pomegranate, apple and pear orchards, and crystal-clear, high-altitude air.
At the downtown Shah M. Book Company shop, owned by Shah Muhammed Rais (the Afghan renamed Sultan Khan in the best-selling The Bookseller of Kabul, and who is attempting to sue the author for defamation), the manager says the cheesy Afghanistan Tourism Information booklet is a big seller to non-Afghans at US$5. Published in the 1970s, when Kabul was one of the essential 'Three Ks' on the hippy overland trail (the others being Kathmandu and Bali's Kuta Beach), the booklet describes a 'captivating' and 'charming' garden city 'with mountains gleaming emerald green in spring'.
Today, the harsh, craggy landscape is grey-brown and all but bare of foliage, its edges blurred and fuzzy in the all-encompassing brume. Occupying Soviets kicked off the process of massive deforestation, clearing hills of cover used to great effect by mujahedeen snipers. As the decades of conflict dragged on, and hungry Kabulis were forced to use wood as the only source of heat during frigid winters, resulting soil erosion carpeted the city in choking ochre dust. Now, pragmatic locals laughingly inform you that 30 per cent of the semi-opaque air they breathe every second of every day consists of dried human-faecal matter, which is used in a desperate attempt to fertilise barren parks and fields.
The lack of transparency that concerns most locals, however, relates to the work of the 2,355 foreign aid groups in Afghanistan. Though billions of dollars have poured into the war-torn country for rebuilding during the past three years, electricity is still intermittent, sewers are inoperable and water flows from taps for just a few hours each day. The majority of Afghans believe funds are being wasted by international aid consultants, who ply the rutted, pot-holed streets in imported Land Cruisers, and who spend their evenings getting drunk at Lan Kwai Fong prices in Kabul's few bars.
Last year, Minister of Planning Ramazan Bachardoust walked out in disgust after embarrassing Karzai with his furious vocal condemnation of the many self-congratulatory international aid groups. Bachardoust had demanded such organisations open their books to the Afghanistan government. Few were prepared to do so. The aid workers' high lifestyles and culture of secrecy have created an atmosphere of corruption that has left most Afghans feeling cheated, disappointed and angry.
On the outskirts of Kabul, meanwhile, underground brick kilns burn around the clock, creating more pollution, but also the building blocks for a rejuvenated city. A government initiative intends 500,000 saplings to be planted within the coming two years, creating a 'green belt' to protect the capital from ever-encroaching dust. In short, though it is coming at a significantly slower pace than Kabulis would like, reconstruction of the war-torn Afghan capital is under way - one brick, one tree, one step at a time.