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Kabul Traffic Cop Pays Price For Playing It Straight


Kabul traffic cop Abdul Saboor Khan

Kabul traffic cop Abdul Saboor Khan

It’s another day…in another week…and, another year at the Sherpur traffic circle for Kabul, Afghanistan traffic cop Abdul Saboor Khan.

Thousands of cars and trucks whiz by every day, directed by Khan’s whistle and his ever-moving arms. He has made quite a theatrical performance out of his job, one that has gained him notoriety – for several reasons.

“When they hear my whistle, they say ‘Saboor Khan’ is here on duty,” he says. “When I am on the road, many people are happy and say thank God you are here. People love the way I organize my tasks. They pay attention when I move my hands and feet,” Saboor Khan told VOA.

When someone disobeys his instructions and gets stopped, one thing doesn’t work. In a society where “give something – get something in return” is often the norm, Khan has made himself a notable exception. He refuses to be bribed out of taking action against the driver making the infraction.

“I don’t do any corruption,” he says. “I work hard and work a lot. Thanks to my hard work, I earn a good salary and God helps me survive on that money. And there are many people who appreciate me,” he says.

Khan has paid a steep price for refusing to be corrupt. After 24 years on the job, Khan has only been given one promotion he says which was then withheld.

“I am known as one of the most honest traffic cops in Afghanistan, in Kabul,” Khan said. “But the promotion they signed for me, they refuse to give me.”

Khan’s salary is the equivalent of US$200 a month. And since he doesn’t take bribes to supplement his pay, he lives in a five room house shared with 28 other people.

While his wallet is thin, his career has been thick with accolades. Khan’s honesty has been commended by everyone from officials of the now-ousted Afghan Taliban regime to international organizations including the United Nations, which made a mini-documentary about him.

Financial watchdog group Global Integrity’s Executive Director, Nathaniel Heller, describes the life Khan has because of his refusal to be corrupt.

“It’s a massive personal sacrifice,” he says. “That’s the first thing to sort of embrace – that he, or someone like him, is doing this at huge risk, and at huge cost, both professionally, and sometimes this turns into personal and family blow-back. Your cousin gets fired, suddenly, for no reason. Sometimes, there is physical safety involved.”

Heller added “Folks who are taking the high road do so at extreme risk and at extreme cost. It’s just a tough slog, and it’s a credit to people like them [Khan] to at least demonstrate what the other example [honesty] looks like.”

Despite all that has gone against him - Khan says that he has even had his toes crushed by cars driving over his feet - he’s out there the next day, and the day after that, in a dusty place where one’s lungs get filled with choking car exhaust. But to Khan, it’s a matter of principles. And that’s the clean air he breathes.
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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.

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