KABUL -- The heat is scorching, and the hours-long wait arduous, but it is a price worth paying for the long line of angry customers standing outside the headquarters of Afghanistan's national power company.
The bearded man who heads the line, Abdul Hadi, is there to complain about the "crazy" electricity bill he received this month.
Hadi knows what to expect -- he went through the same thing with the company, Breshna Sherkat, just weeks earlier and ended up paying a bribe. Now a veteran of the game, he is sure he is being deliberately overcharged by unscrupulous employees keen on making some money on the side.
Afghanistan's status of one of the world's most corrupt countries is well-documented and features prominently in high-level discussion about foreign investment in the country. Lost in the shuffle, however, is the extent to which corruption permeates all levels Afghan society.
Whether ensuring that they have a steady stream of electricity, acquiring identification, or dealing with judicial authorities, ordinary citizens have reluctantly come to accept bribery as an unavoidable cost of life.
Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a local nongovernmental organization, estimates that Afghans, who have consistently identified corruption as among their biggest concerns next to insecurity and unemployment, pay bribes amounting to $1 billion a year, about 5 percent of the country's entire annual gross domestic product (GDP).
Hadi sheds light on how every-day corruption is played out when he recalls how in May he received a 35,000 afghani (around $720) electric bill -- a sum that exceeds the monthly salary of many Afghan families.
Hadi had never received a monthly bill for more than 3,000 afghanis before, and had not added to his meager collection of electrical devices -- a TV, a refrigerator, some lamps, and a few other appliances.
Abdul Hadi, pictured in the middle, lodges a complaint at Breshna Sherkat over his electricity bill.
Seeking to rectify the problem, he filed complaints with Breshna Sherkat, but that got him nowhere. Eventually, Hadi says, he bribed an employee of the electric company who in turn reduced his original bill to 2,000 afghanis ($40).
"[They] told us to pay them so they could change our electricity bill. When we went there, they said, 'Give us a 6,000 afghanis (about $120) bribe. I told them I didn't have 6,000 so he took 4,000 instead and changed the amount on the bill [from 35,000 to 2,000 afghanis]," Hadi says.
A month later, he received a bill for the same inflated amount -- 35,000 afghanis -- prompting his return to the complaint line.
Hadi and others waiting outside Breshna Sherkat believe the company's conversion to a new computerized billing system is the source of the problem. Since the transition, they say, their bills have varied wildly and there is no way to verify the actual amount of electricity they have used.
Mirwais Alami, chief commercial officer at Breshna Sherkat, admits that mistakes are sometime made due to technical errors, but denies staff are involved in any wrongdoing.
"I never say that customers are always wrong and making wrong accusations. Maybe one in 10,000 bills has a mistake in them. A very low percentage of mistakes are caused by us reading meters incorrectly and the others when entering wrong data into a computer system," Alami says.
Ajmal, who owns a music store in Kabul, says corruption in Afghanistan has become all but institutionalized.
"[Corruption] is a serious problem. There are kickbacks and bribery. Without them, nobody can get anything done," Ajmal says.
"The government must take this seriously because these small things are becoming a bigger [problem]. The corruption starts from the streets and ends with the ministries. It's a big problem."
Ajmal adds that while high-level corruption gets the most attention, malfeasance by middling officials in the security forces, judiciary, or education system is the most damaging to society.
He insists that if you want to get anything done in Afghanistan, it is going to require paying a bribe. He recalls paying dozens of bribes in the past year, including when he applied for new identification and a passport last month.
According to the National Passport Office, which issues the country's passports and identification cards, the processing time for getting a passport is two working days and for an ID card it is one day after all relevant paperwork is submitted.
Documents For Sale
But Ajmal says he and three of his friends endured obstructions and delays for a week when they followed official channels. Eventually, he says, he paid a middleman who promptly supplied the three with all of their official documents in just a day.
While the official price for a one-year passport is 700 afghanis ($15) and 200 afghanis ($4) for an ID card, Ajmal says that his final tally including bribes paid came to more than 4,000 afghanis ($80).
"Finally, someone informed us you have to pay a bribe. Three of us gave 500 afghanis each and they gave us our I.D. cards. We then went to the passport office, where hundreds of people were waiting in the queue," Ajmal says.
Qadir, inside the restaurant he owns in Kabul.
"We tried everything we could for a week. We then gave 3,000 afghanis each and got our passports. People who don't give bribes are left there for weeks, while those who do pay get theirs in one or two days."
Qadir, a restaurant owner in Kabul, says the reality is that in Afghanistan, money speaks loudest.
He was involved in a car accident in which two pedestrians were injured. But while the injured couple did not press charges, Qadir says the district prosecutor has delayed clearing him of wrongdoing in what he believes is a bid to get him a small "sherani" (sweetener), Afghan slang for a petty bribe.
"When you have money, the prosecutor, judge, court, and police are in your pocket. But when you don't have money you have nobody. Which [government] institution is not taking money?" Qadir says.
"The government is mired in corruption and they are aware of this. If the high-ranking officials are getting a bribe do you think lower-ranking officials are not? The government is involved, why are they making us suffer?"