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Afghanistan: Tokyo Conference News Travels Slowly To Kabul

  • Theodor Alexe

Just days after donor nations in Tokyo pledged more than $4.5 billion to help rebuild Afghanistan, Afghans in Kabul appear to know little about the aid, or that there was a donors conference at all. There are few newspapers in Kabul, and regular power outages mean that radio -- the main source of news for Afghans -- is not reaching all Afghans all of the time. RFE/RL correspondent Dan Alexe reports from Kabul that average Afghans on the street still have little sense of the major news events affecting their war-torn country.

Kabul, 24 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yusuf is a middle-aged locksmith who works on the street, with the tools of his trade spread out before him on the sidewalk. On 23 January -- a day after an Afghan donors conference concluded in Tokyo with pledges of some $4.5 billion in aid -- Yusuf says he had not heard about the conference.

Although he says he can get information from the radio, Kabul's erratic power supply means there is no permanent, reliable way to receive up-to-date news.

"I listen to the news, but we don't have electricity regularly. We have electricity for just five hours a day, and even then it fluctuates. In the course of five hours, it goes off two or three times. During those times, we are not able to listen to the radio," Yusuf says.

A woman, clad in a head-to-toe blue burqa and wearing high heels, is begging nearby. She refuses to give her name, but agrees to speak to a reporter through the cotton mask that covers her face. When asked about the donors conference, she appears to be better informed than the astonished locksmith, describing a minor car accident in Tokyo involving the country's interim leader, Hamid Karzai.

She says she gets her news from a battery-operated radio: "I heard about Mr. Hamid Karzai's car accident and about the increase in foreign assistance, and I pray that God will save us from this poverty."

The city's young and relatively well-educated residents fare only slightly better. Mohammad is a student in his early 20s who answers in good, if slightly hesitant, English when asked about the donors conference: "Really, if I tell you the truth, this conference, which is going to be held, or which is [already going on] in Tokyo, as far as I know it's for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of our poor and really war-stricken country. For the people [can] be considered one of the poorest in the world, and moreover hardened by 18 years of war and the latest clashes. And the dire economics facing the country, and also the majority of the foundations of the economy, have been deteriorated as the result of three decades of war. I appreciate this conference, and I am very glad of the fall of the Taliban, and I know that the results of this conference will be good and that the people will benefit from it. I appreciate this conference."

When told that the conference has, in fact, already ended, Mohammad is quick to defend himself: "I, as a student at the university, and therefore a semi-educated person, I [should] know everything. But because of the problems we have now -- for example, in the place in which we live, we haven't got electricity -- how can we be aware of the current situation that is going on in the country? These are the problems which we face, and I regret this situation in Afghanistan."

But not everybody is in the same situation. Some Kabul residents do know about the $4,500 million in aid pledges and are grateful to the donors. One of them is Abdullah, an English-speaking waiter in a small restaurant: "We think very well about [the donors], and we wish for them to support our country and to rebuild our country very soon. Not late, OK? We need to rebuild our country ourselves, and we also want the organizations, especially the United Nations, to support the people to rebuild our country again."

When asked how he had heard about the outcome of the conference, Abdullah says he got the news by word of mouth. And until the money pledged at the Tokyo conference translates into actual reconstruction of the country, that may be the way most Afghans find out about the news.