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Afghanistan: Ruins Of Kabul's Historic Monuments Tell Story Of Last 10 Years

  • Bruce Pannier

Some of the most famous conquerors in world history have passed through the current Afghan capital, Kabul -- Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babur Shah. The British occupied Kabul twice in the 19th century, and the Soviet army once in the late 20th century. Many of the historic sites of ancient Kabul are in ruins now, but most of the destruction dates from the factional fighting of the last 10 years. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier takes a tour of the historic sites of old Kabul, or what's left of them.

Kabul, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The exact age of the Afghan capital, Kabul, is a matter of speculation. It is known that the city existed before Alexander the Great passed through, making it at least 2,500 years old.

Among the oldest remaining structures in Kabul is the Bala Hissar, literally the "high fortress." It is located in the southeastern part of modern-day Kabul. The fortress was built some 600 years ago. The Central Asian conqueror Tamerlane, who died in 1405, called it home for a while, and much of the wall he ordered built as a defensive work on the hill above Bala Hissar still stands.

During the factional fighting that raged in Kabul from 1992 to 1996, Uzbek militia, under the command of current interim Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum, occupied Bala Hissar.

Jamil is a soldier who says he lost his left leg in fighting in Takhar Province more than a year ago. He says he was with Ahmad Shah Massoud's forces -- mainly ethnic Tajiks -- when they fought for Bala Hissar.

Jamil now lives in a house near the old fortress. He spoke about Bala Hissar in the days before the fighting: "Once, it was very beautiful. It looked good. There were disciplined forces [there]. It had a dining room and everything."

Jamil explained what happened at Bala Hissar and why it is now in ruins: "There was fighting in Bala Hissar with the Hezbe Islami. Then there was fighting with [Abdul Rashid] Dostum. And after that, the Taliban came to power. Dostum and Hezb-i-Islami fought and Shurai Nazar (Massoud's force) and the Hezb-i-Wahdat (Shiite). This fortress belonged to Hezb-i-Islami, then Dostum. Then after Hezb-i-Islami and Dostum, the Panjshir mujahedin (Massoud's forces) captured it."

One of Kabul's most beautiful gardens, Baghi Babur, near the Kabul River, seems an unlikely place for a battlefield, but it, too, suffered during the factional fighting.

Babur Shah is credited with founding the Mogul Empire, although it was his descendants who conquered India and truly founded the empire. Babur Shah died in 1530 and is buried in Baghi Babur, which mean "Babur's garden."

The United Nations Development Program and the UN group Habitat began to repair damage to the garden in 1997, but the mosque, palace, and dining hall at Baghi Babur remain in ruins. The caretaker of the garden says it will take many years to repair the destruction.

"The garden was destroyed in fighting between the Taliban and mujahedin. The organization Habitat helped us to restore it. Maybe in the future we will get help to fix it up again. Most of this destruction is from the Taliban. They cut down the trees and bushes for firewood to cook food."

Whether out of respect or, more likely, through pure chance, Babur's tomb was not hit by rockets or bullets during the fighting, the only structure in his garden not affected.

The mausoleum of Nadir Shah, the father of former Afghan King Zahir Shah, is perhaps the most visible symbol of the intensity of the factional fighting that raged in the city. Nadir Shah was killed by a Hazara assassin in 1933 at a school. As a result, Hazara -- mainly Shiites descended from the time of Mongol rule in Afghanistan and the core of the Hezb-i-Wahdat faction -- were forbidden to attend schools until the 1970s.

Situated on a hill across the valley from Bala Hissar, Nadir Shah's mausoleum was occupied by Uzbek militia loyal to Dostum. The floor and ceiling are riddled with bullet holes.

During a recent visit to the mausoleum, two men were working to repair the damage ahead of Zahir Shah's expected return to Kabul in late March. One of the workmen explained, briefly and simply, the main cause of the mausoleum's destruction: "In the past, it was used as a military bunker. This destruction which you can see is all because of the war."

Repairing the structure carries it own risks. Stacked neatly outside the mausoleum are dozens of unexploded rockets unearthed by cleanup crews. The workers are also concerned about the possibility of booby traps and other hazards in a system of tunnels that exists beneath the mausoleum.

"There is a possibility there are mines here because this bunker has not been cleared yet. They haven't cleared the dirt and wreckage, so it is unclear [if there are mines left]. There is an 80 percent chance that there are mines here. We are trying to get mine clearance teams to come here."

There is graffiti covering the walls in one tunnel, scrawled mainly in Dari and Pashtu. On one section of the wall, however, a person who signed his name as Safi Safed wrote in English: "Welcome to the city of battle, Kabul."

Nadir Shah's mausoleum will probably be one of the first Kabul monuments to be restored to its former glory. The two workmen RFE/RL spoke with -- who were, at first, the only ones working at the mausoleum -- were soon joined by up to 30 others.

The Red and Yellow Palaces are in the southwestern part of Kabul, built sometime in the 20th century to house visiting foreign diplomats. Hezb-i-Islami soldiers took up positions in the palace complex. Dostum's warplanes bombed the complex at least once, leaving a large hole in the ground in front of the Red Palace.

Later, Hezb-i-Islami troops drove a tank up to one of the palaces, attracting even more fire to the site. The Taliban also reportedly took away some 5,000 trees and bushes from the palace grounds to use as firewood.

RFE/RL spoke to a gardener at the palace, who says he has remained in his position without pay since before the Taliban came to power. He explained some of the palaces' sad story during the factional fighting of 1992 to 1996.

"The tank was brought by Hezb-i-Islami. They put the tank here for their personnel. But Shurai Nazar (Massoud) surrounded them, and they fought each other. The palace caught fire and burned."

There are places in Kabul which one would expect to have been targets of destruction but which, amazingly, survived the city's recent conflicts relatively unscathed.

The Christian cemetery in Kabul's center is an example. The small, enclosed courtyard is the final resting place of 158 British citizens, many of them casualties of the two wars of the 19th century. The legendary Central Asian explorer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sir Aurel Stein, is buried there, too.

Members of the British contingent of the current International Security Assistance Force are working at the cemetery to raise a monument to their fallen countrymen. They credit the cemetery's keeper with preserving the grounds, since it is said the Taliban planned to dig up the graveyard and remove any valuables that may have been buried with the corpses.

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