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Afghanistan: Experts Discuss Picking Up The Pieces Of Broken Kabul

The Afghan capital, Kabul, has been host this week to an international conference on rebuilding the city. Government officials sponsoring the event hope participants can work out a list of priorities so that a rational reconstruction plan can be formulated. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker attended the conference. He says the reconstruction effort is complicated by the hundreds of thousands of refugees now in the city and by differences of opinion over what to do about them.

Kabul, 24 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Urban-development experts from around the world are wrapping up a four-day conference in Kabul to discuss strategies for rebuilding the Afghan capital.

The conference, titled "Kabul and the National Urban Vision," is sponsored by the Afghan Ministry of Urban Development and Housing, along with the UN-HABITAT group and the American Society of Afghan Engineers.

Afghanistan's minister for housing and urban reconstruction, Youssef Pashtun, tells RFE/RL the purpose of the conference: "We have invited around 65 foreign and domestic experts. They are trying to listen to the general issues and to present different schemes for discussion. And then we hope that we can make an urban reconstruction policy guideline in a general sense for Afghanistan."

Pashtun says the ministry hopes to draw from the experience of countries such as Japan and Germany, which suffered war destruction on par with that of Afghanistan: "We want to benefit from the experience of foreign experts, especially those from Japan, who have enough experience in this regard, since most of the country's cities were destroyed after the [second world] war. Germany is another example, and also the Balkan countries in recent years have experience in reconstruction."

Kabul has been devastated by 23 years of invasions and civil war in the country. Firm figures on the scope of the destruction are hard to come by, but some 50 percent of the city was leveled and as much as 90 percent of the buildings sustained damage from mortars, rockets, and bullets.

The redevelopment effort is complicated by the arrival in Kabul of as many as 500,000 refugees and displaced persons. The influx of people, many of whom have never lived in Kabul, has swelled the city's population to as high as 2 million people by some estimates.

Richard Ragland is an adviser to the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing and one of the conference organizers. Ragland says he hopes the participants can agree on a list of priorities for assigning scarce reconstruction funds. He says this won't be easy, given the sheer size of the redevelopment effort: "The priorities are very difficult to determine because everything is so interrelated. [The questions are] how to begin, how to plan, how to organize, how to reconstruct a city that has been destroyed in so many different ways."

Kabul these days is filled with all manner of governmental and nongovernmental agencies, each pushing its own agenda for a share of the reconstruction aid.

Some argue the first priority should be to provide sewage and wastewater treatment to cut down on the incidence of disease. Others say the first priority should be to provide potable water to city residents. Still others say that roads and telecommunications must be improved.

Minister Pashtun admits the task borders on the impossible: "In my opinion, there are many priorities of urban reconstruction, and it's difficult to judge which priorities are the most important and which are the least important. But there are some important things. For example, if there is not drinkable water, then the existence of indoor plumbing does not have meaning."

Already planners are showing signs of disagreement over what to do with the refugees. Some say they favor developing rural areas to encourage the new arrivals to return to their villages. Others concede that the refugees -- having grown accustomed to "city" life in camps in Pakistan and Iran -- will probably never go back. They say Kabul needs to provide housing for a vastly larger permanent population.

For Kabul Mayor Anwar Jekdalek, the first priority is getting everyone -- permanent residents and new arrivals alike -- under a roof before winter comes. He tells RFE/RL: "I want to give priority to the reconstruction and clearance of Kabul city, especially to the refugees to save them from the harsh winter, to help them survive the cold and to provide shelter for the coming year."

Perhaps to encourage the participants that the job is not impossible, conference organizers have displayed a wall-sized copy of a "master plan" of Kabul drawn up in 1978, before the cycle of wars started. The plan shows carefully laid out housing and recreation areas, business districts, parks, and schools.

Organizers concede, however, that it may take 23 more years, at least, for the city to get back to where it started.

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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.