Kabul youth determined to exorcise old ghosts

By Robin Fernendez

KABUL: Kabul is bursting with life and quite unlike the capital of a country that has seen internecine fighting for the better part of more than three decades. Its thoroughfares and streets, though narrow and potholed, are clogged with traffic; its shops and bazaars replete with goods, most of them from Pakistan and Iran.

Construction is booming in this city of more than five million and property prices are staggeringly high, sometimes rivaling Tokyo and New York.  The city is seeing an uptick in vertical growth, with hundreds of tall apartment buildings and office complexes sprouting out every few months. Cell phone service giant MTN is building an 88-storey building in the heart of the capital, which will soon dwarf the Soviet-built telecommunications office towers by 60-odd floors.

The Afghan national currency stands stronger against the US dollar than the Pakistani rupee, with one dollar roughly equal to 52 afghanis. Ludicrous as it may sound, Pakistanis in Afghanistan have to spend twice as much money on a product than they would in their own country.

The city hosts an army of guest workers, some 100,000 of them from Pakistan alone. This is hardly surprising because Kabul is really a “second Dubai” for many people, as Hamid Zazai of Mediothek prefers to call his beloved city. For guest workers in the region, the one advantage that Kabul has over Gulf Arab cities is that it does not charge them a sponsorship or even a resident permit fee. This is a specially neat arrangement for Pakistani workers, many of whom prefer to work without a holiday for up to three months at a stretch, because at those intervals they can cross the border with a heavy pay cheque in hand.

Like Pakistani medical professionals, construction workers from the country are much sought after.

“They work fast, are skilled and cause less trouble than their Afghan counterparts,” said Mohammad Sheikh Hamdam of the Afghan Anti-Corruption Network. “They are prepared to accept lower wages than our nationals,” he added. Hamdam believes he would have been able to construct a new house in Kabul six months earlier had he employed Pakistani labourers. Many other home builders in Afghanistan share this view.

Afghan officials are proud of the decade of development that their capital has seen, in particular, after the catastrophic rule of the Taliban.  They wince when the news media glosses over their country’s progress in several key areas and instead belittles their efforts towards reconstruction.

Civil society groups and a relatively free media are at the vanguard of this effort. Young Afghan men and women have banded together to form leadership and policymaking advisory councils that are already liaising and interacting with both the Karzai administration and the opposition groups. A member of the youth leadership group, Dr Fawad Farzad, points out that as direct stakeholders a number of youth have taken their place in government ministries and departments. “What we are trying to create is a second and third tier of leadership for the country,” explains Dr Fawad Farzad. “With five or ten years, you will see them firmly in control of Afghanistan.”

Sediq Sediqi, a spokesman for the Afghan interior ministry and himself a former youth leadership programme member, says his compatriots desire freedom and progress for the next Afghan generation. Sediqi says he and other Afghan youth are also determined to keep the Taliban out. “The Taliban cannot come back…we will never allow dark and barbaric forces to rule us again.”

Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2012.

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