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Afghanistan Starts Arduous Task of Rebuilding Kabul - 2002-10-30

Afghanistan's capital suffered horribly from the ravages of war and civil strife that gripped the country for some 23 years. Now, with a semblance of peace achieved, the city is struggling to rebuild.

On a lot near Kabul's center, workers are removing debris so a new building can replace the shell of a structure that once stood at the site. It is a scene being repeated across the capital as the arduous task of rebuilding Kabul begins.

In earlier years, Kabul was a vibrant city. But the civil war that began in the early 1990s destroyed or damaged whole neighborhoods.

In one area, a graveyard of rusted-out old streetcars is mute testament to days when electric trolleys plied the streets. Buildings are marked with bullet holes, and many have no windows. Streets are pockmarked with craters and potholes, making driving around town a bone-jarring experience. Electricity is sporadic at best. The water and sewage system barely functions in some neighborhoods, not at all in others.

Yusef Pashtoon is the Minister for Housing and City Planning, in effect, Kabul's chief urban planner. He says the capital has so many things to be remedied that it is hard to know where to start. But Mr. Pashtoon says, the most immediate problem is housing.

"The biggest problem we have in the urban areas not only in Kabul, but all over the country, is the shortage of houses, acute shortage," he said. "And preparation for that is not an easy job. It's not a couple of hundred houses. We are talking of something like 50,000 to 100,000 units of houses in Kabul to be built in at least the next two years."

Housing must be built to accommodate not only those whose houses were destroyed, but for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have come to Kabul. Many refugees find their farms destroyed, so they come to the capital, further swelling a population now estimated at three to four million.

Mr. Pashtoon says the chaos of the war years has caused many people to simply occupy empty homes.

"Most of the available land within the city limits for any kind of major size of housing is all occupied already through illegal houses during the past 10, 12 years," he said. "In fact, at this moment, more than 40 percent of the houses you see in Kabul are illegal, including those on the mountainsides."

The city will not evict the squatters. Instead, ambitious plans have been drawn up to build the first of five suburban areas, dubbed "satellite towns", on the city fringes. The first, Mr. Pashtoon says, will be on the eastern edge of the city, beyond the airport, with a mix of low, middle, and high income housing for as many as 500,000 people.

Mr. Pashtoon adds that city's power system will have to be completely rebuilt. He says only about 60 to 70 percent of the city gets power on an irregular basis. Thirty percent of Kabul, he says, gets no power at all. The water and sewage systems must also be reconstructed.

But where is the money to come from for all this rebuilding? Mr. Pashtoon says private enterprise will have to be the key, because these kinds of projects have not attracted sufficient donations from international aid organizations.

"Unfortunately, no, I do not think it might come at the volume that we expect because donors are not very much interested in urban developments," Mr. Pashtoon said. "They are mostly interested in long-term types of projects which bring more economic development first and in bigger scale. And they are interested, of course, on the relief side more."

After so many years as a battle zone, the capital is slowly, hesitantly starting to recover. But it is likely to be quite a while before Kabul is fully healthy