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Afghanistan: 'Babur's Garden' In Kabul To Be Restored

International donors are leading an effort to restore one of Kabul's best-loved parks, Babur Gardens. The park was destroyed in factional fighting in the early 1990s, when much of the Afghan capital was reduced to rubble. But some have questioned the channeling of scarce resources to rebuilding a park when many here still go hungry. RFE/RL spoke with restorers who defended the effort as a symbol of the country's rebirth.

Kabul, 17 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A group of international donors, including the U.S. and German embassies and the private Aga Khan foundation, are working to restore one of Kabul's best-known parks, the Babur Gardens.

The gardens were destroyed in the factional fighting that engulfed the capital in the early 1990s. Nowhere was the devastation greater than on Kabul's western side, where the park affords a commanding view of the city.

Babur Gardens occupies a special place in the hearts of Kabul residents. Its origins date back more than 500 years to the reign of Emperor Babur Shah. Babur is buried here today.

Before the fighting, the gardens were a popular spot for strolling. Ancient chinar (poplar) trees offered respite from the heat. A pavilion served cold drinks. Children could swim in a nearby pool.

Today, the gardens are virtually indistinguishable from the devastation of the surrounding area. Mortar attacks destroyed much of the pavilion and a mosque on the site. Babur's tomb appears intact, but it is pockmarked with bullets. The once lush gardens are lifeless and the trees are all but gone.

Abdul Rahim Khuram works for the Development of Humanitarian Services for Afghanistan group, an Afghan NGO that is spearheading the restoration effort.

He says the park, perched between rival warlord factions in the 1990s, did not weather the war years well. "Everything, everywhere, you will see the marks of bullets. The marks of shrapnel, the bombs, for example, the mortars, everything. [During] the winter, the [fighters cut down] the trees -- the beautiful, nice trees which were used for the greenery of this garden -- for fuel."

Khuram says the U.S. and German embassies in Kabul and the Aga Khan foundation are underwriting the costs of reconstruction. The U.S. has pledged $37,000 for rebuilding the pavilion, but the total cost of fixing the structure could run as high as $150,000.

Babur is a colorful figure in Afghan history. Born in the Ferghana Valley of present-day Uzbekistan and a descendant of Genghis Khan, Babur was known for his skills as both a gardener and a warrior. After taking Kabul, he later went on to conquer India. Historians know him as the founder of the Moghul Empire that ruled India for two centuries.

Khuram says before Babur died, he asked to be buried in Kabul, the city he loved best. "[Because] he died [during the] winter, they could not take his body here [to Kabul], so they buried him temporarily [in India]. And after several months, they brought him to Kabul, and he is buried in that tomb right now."

Some here have questioned the wisdom of spending so much money on a park at a time when many in the city do not have adequate food or shelter.

The area immediately surrounding the park bore witness to some of the worst atrocities of the Afghan civil war. Thousands of civilians were killed as an entire quarter of the city was reduced to rubble. The empty shells of mud-brick houses standing amid piles of rocks resemble more the ruins of ancient Rome than a modern city. Wouldn't the money be better spent trying to rebuild some of these houses?

Engineer Shafi of the NGO Helping Afghan Farmers Organization (HAFO) defends the restoration. He says it's needed as a symbol of the Afghan nation at a time when nation-building is very important. "It's one of the most valuable and historic sites of our country, and that's why we wanted to restore it. It is part of the national heritage of the people of Afghanistan. So that it has to be preserved."

Shafi's group is involved in rebuilding the mud-cement walls that once surrounded the park. When the walls were first built centuries ago, legend has it that cows were used to trample the sand to make it finer and the cement stronger.

HAFO isn't using any cows, but Shafi says the restorers are trying as much as possible to respect the original building techniques and materials -- even if it means taking more time. "In my opinion, rebuilding historical sites requires more time and attention. If this were ordinary work, we could complete it in a very short period of time. But because the walls have historical value, the materials should be the same as the materials that were originally used. That's why it will take a long time, although we want to finish this work within four months."

Shafi's four-month timetable for completing the work sounds optimistic. Workers are currently fixing the walls at a rate of 5 square meters a day. At that pace, it will take years to repair the thousands of square meters of wall.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.