Prague, 22 December 2005 (RFE/RL) - Ask a businessman in the Afghan capital Kabul how he views the past year, and he might respond like Nazar Mohammad. “Life is 30 to 40 percent better than in the past. We have Internet access and mobile phones. We have schools on every corner and classes in languages such as English. Now there are no restrictions on movement. Everyone has the right to travel,” he says.
One hope -- for a better financial system and banking guarantees -- has not been fulfilled, but Mohammad is nonetheless pleased with the economy’s progress. “Earlier, people’s economic level was low,” he says. “Now, overall, it has grown for everyone, not only for us."
Phones, Buildings, Roads
Mohammad is one of the lucky ones who has prospered since a U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban in 2001 and from the new economic growth in the capital, growth visible not just in the spread of phone services but in the construction of new buildings and the resurfacing of roads.
Much of the money for the reconstruction work in Kabul and elsewhere comes from international donors. But, increasingly, businesspeople like Mohammad are proving able to earn a living from commercial activity, a line of business that the Taliban effectively halted.
Six Children Killed
But ask a poorer Kabul resident how the year was for him, and he might reply like Mohammad Akbar, a driver and father of four. “Under the new government, we are relatively OK,” he says. “At least there are no rockets pouring down on us.” His yardstick are harsh experiences. Six of his children were killed in one night during the civil war. Then, after a spell as a refugee, he returned to Afghanistan, only to suffer once again, this time under the Taliban. Even so, his life has not been transformed. “We are just at the stage where we are neither dead nor really living. To tell the truth, we have not seen the fruit of [the changes] yet.”
“We were hoping everything would be OK, that there would be factories and people would be working,” he says. “But under this new government, what we hoped for has not happened yet. We were so happy, looking forward to this government's coming, but we have no good memories of it."
He singles out education as a key concern. “Not a single book was given to our children in their school this year. We purchased all the books ourselves.”
Akbar's comments are a reminder that for many poorer Kabul residents, work is still hard to find, despite the reconstruction projects. Outside the capital, the employment situation is often worse.
Fear Of Violence
In Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, an informal street poll reveals a similar mix of emotions about 2005, together with widespread fears over the bombings that are a daily occurrence in the city.
"By God, the situation now is no good,” sales one Iraqi man who did wish to give his name. “Wherever you are, you can never know if there is a car bomber or a terrorist or something there.” He recalls that “here, just the other day, people were taking photographs, and some four or five [men] came and opened fire on them with machine guns. These are the things that have been happening. Everybody is under threat."
His remarks underscore not just the fear of bombings and shootings, but also of kidnappings.
Still, for some, the violence is eclipsed by the new economic opportunities that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. "It is only security that has somehow become worse than it should be,” says one woman who works in the state administration. “But, as for economic stability, that is good now. Especially we civil servants can feel the difference. Civil servants have been doing things like furnishing their flats; that wouldn’t have been possible before, as they could not afford that.”
Iraq's regime change has brought an end to once-crippling UN sanctions, better salaries for some, as well as internationally and U.S.-funded reconstruction projects.
But in parts of the country, particularly in central Iraq, reconstruction efforts have been slowed down, even derailed, by the continuing insurgency.
Iraqis ended the year by voting for the country's first constitutional parliament, a step many hope will help finally bring stability to the country.
Whether it does will be the central question for ordinary Iraqis over the next 12 months.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq and Afghan Service contributed to this report)