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Preparations for Loya Jirga Completed in Record Time - 2002-06-09

Afghanistan is set to hold a Loya Jirga, or grand council, on Monday. Delegates will meet in Kabul to choose a new government. The task of putting together such a gathering was a logistical headache.

The Loya Jirga can be likened to a political convention, except it is nothing like Afghanistan has ever seen.

The 1551 delegates, coming from all across Afghanistan, will deliberate, eat and sleep under extremely tight security at a facility that has risen from the rubble of the Kabul Polytechnic Institute.

The price tag for the United Nations to organize the Loya Jirga, including feeding and housing the delegates comes to a hefty $7.3 million, including $3.5 million from the German government, which also undertook the mammoth task of constructing the facility.

The classrooms at the institute have been refurbished into sleeping quarters for the delegates. Another large, circular building has also been rehabilitated and turned into a large dining hall. For the council itself, a large enclosed tent was constructed on the site. Huge generators provide an uninterrupted power supply.

All of this work was done in the astonishingly short period of six weeks.

Andreas von Schumann is the project manager for the government-owned German Agency for Technical Cooperation. He says the institute was in ruins from factional fighting and that explosives ordnance experts, known as EOD teams, from the international peacekeeping force had to first come in to clear unexploded mines, rockets and bombs. "It was destroyed from the war between 1992 to '96," he said. "And our first task was to clean the site, to clean so that the construction work could start. And we were there together with ISAF [peacekeepers] with so-called EOD services to look for these things. And in the third week of April, we start the construction work. And we do it, all this work, with Afghan sub-contractors."

The centerpiece is the mammoth conference hall, a new 2,800 square meter tent. It has metal sides and a tent roof and is equipped with up-to-date sound and communications equipment. It was brought over in modular parts, along with other gear, in five huge Antonov transports planes beginning in early May. It is, in fact, very much the same as one of the huge tents set up at the annual Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich. It is not, as Mr. von Schumann adds with a laugh, a German beer tent, but maybe a piece of it once was. "I did read that this is a tent from Oktoberfest," he said. "That is wrong because [only] maybe one piece of the tent was once at Oktoberfest."

Security is extremely tight because of fears of a possible attack by terrorists. Soldiers of the newly-formed Afghan National Guard provide much of the security, but they are backed up by members of the international peacekeeping force. A 3,000-meter fence surrounds the 336,000 square meter site. The surrounding hills are manned by peacekeepers to prevent anyone from raining rocket or mortar fire on the Loya Jirga.

No one gets in to the facility except delegates and the 450-member support staff, each of whom has been issued a special identity card. There are metal detectors and body searches. The media are barred from the facility during the Loya Jirga itself and were only allowed one visit to see it. The 500-plus reporters, photographers, camera people and technicians are restricted to a press center at a nearby hotel, where they will monitor the proceedings on closed-circuit television.

Mr. von Schumann says it is not clear what will happen to the tent when the Loya Jirga is over. It may be dismantled and taken back to Germany, but it may also be left on the site for future use.

Mr. von Schumann says his biggest headache afterward is explaining to his bosses how he could do all this in six weeks when it usually takes his agency a year and a half to organize conferences.