Kabul's blast walls protect a powerful few, cause misery for many more
By MICHAEL E. MILLER | The Washington Post | Published: January 23, 2016
KABUL — For Abdul Fatah, distance is the enemy. Every morning, the metal scavenger drags his heavy wooden cart onto Kabul's dusty streets in search of scrap. With callused hands, he sifts through rubble for a few cents' worth of rebar. Then he winds his way back through more than a dozen miles of traffic jams and potholes to the junkyard, where he sells his finds before falling asleep in a flimsy tent.
"It's a tough job," Fatah said one recent afternoon. "And all these walls make it even tougher."
Thirty yards away, concrete ramparts loomed in the middle of the street. Soldiers gripping Kalashnikov rifles glared from behind candy-striped blast walls. Once a public thoroughfare, the street now belongs to Abdurrashid Dostum, a warlord elected first vice president of Afghanistan in 2014.
"If the road in front of his house were not blocked, we wouldn't have to go around the area," lamented Din Mohammad, another scavenger. "It's like that all over Kabul."
As security in this battle-scarred capital has worsened in recent years, the blast walls have proliferated. With every suicide bombing, the concrete thickens around the homes of government officials, nonprofit organizations and embassies. Roadblocks appear overnight. Kabul's snow-capped mountains have disappeared from view. All the while, residents grow angrier.
"I grew up in Kabul. This is my city," said Omaid Sharifi, a local activist. "I've been here during Taliban, mujahideen, all the wars and everything. The city I remember wasn't like this. This looks like a prison to me."
Fifteen years after the Taliban fled Kabul, life here is undoubtedly freer. Music echoes from storefronts, and men and women mingle in public.
Physically, however, the city looks more forbidding than it did then. By some estimates, it now boasts more blast walls than any city on earth, as Baghdad, the previous record holder, slowly dismantles its barriers.
Some see the security measures as a simple necessity. With a resurgent Taliban in control of nearly a third of the country, al-Qaeda camps again appearing in the south, and the Islamic State less than 100 miles from the capital, now is not the time to put scenery ahead of safety, they say.
No one wants to see security reduced around schools or hospitals. But some argue that Kabul's miles of blast walls mainly benefit VIPs and that average citizens are forced to live in a city that isugly and unsafe.
"People are hurling profanity at officials when they close avenues to traffic or totally shut down streets," said Atiqullah Amarkhail, a retired general and security analyst. "Ordinary people get stuck on the roads when officials drive past. Some in need of being rushed to hospital have perished."
Afghans want their officials to be safe, he added, but not at all costs.
"This has had a high psychological impact on the people," he said. "People say our leaders are only protecting themselves."
When a top deputy to Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah recently erected huge blast walls around his central Kabul home, for example, a nearby butcher said business plummeted.
"Customers don't want to come when they see the walls," he said. "They think it's a dangerous area."
That wasn't the only problem. "The walls attract the attention of attackers," he said. "If something happens, they will be protected inside, and we outside will be the victims."
Abdul Hadi, a former soldier, quit the military six months ago to become a cab driver in Kabul, closer to his family. But because of Kabul's blast walls and roadblocks, he said, he is broke. "They are a waste of time, fuel and money," he said.
Like Hadi, many here see no option but to wait for officials to remove the walls. But some have found ways to protest.
"We have to reclaim our city," said Sharifi, the activist. A year ago, he and some friends began covering some of Kabul's blast walls with murals. "You cannot go get a shovel and bring them down," he said. "So we decided to use paint."
The group's name, ArtLords, is a sly reference to the warlords and drug lords who have long run the country. Their best-known piece is a gigantic pair of eyes staring from the wall around the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence service. Sharifi and artist Kabir Mokamel spent weeks obtaining permission to paint the mural. They also chose an ambiguous image: The eyes are a warning to corrupt officials that they are being watched, Sharifi says, but some interpret them as a critique of NDS surveillance. Less than two months after the mural was completed, however, it vanished. Someone high up in the NDS had taken offense and ordered it whitewashed, Sharifi learned.
"I was really shocked," he said. "What is the difference between this government, this NDS office, that destroys an artwork and the Taliban, who destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan?"
Sharifi eventually persuaded the NDS to let ArtLords repaint the mural, and the group has since transformed other blast walls across the city. But the problem is too big for ArtLords alone to handle.
"It's not only government offices, it's business people, it's the international community, it's the embassies" putting up walls, Sharifi said. The U.S. Embassy recently added an enormous blast wall, and most foreign media — including The Washington Post — have similar protection.
The walls have undoubtedly saved lives. When the Taliban detonated a truck bomb near the airport on Jan. 4, the powerful explosion left a 15-foot crater. But concrete barriers shielded a nearby U.S. compound from the brunt of the blast. Only one person died — outside the walls.
What seems to anger locals most is individuals using blast walls to carve personal fiefdoms out of public space.
"For the business people, these former warlords or even drug lords, it has become a matter of prestige," Sharifi said. "I really wanted to have a message for them, that this thing you are doing to show your power actually shows that you're corrupt."
It's unclear whether Afghan officials are getting that message. When a reporter tried to take a photo of Dostum's candy-striped security gate, a swarm of soldiers detained him, his translator and his driver and threatened to smash his camera.
"We have to take serious precautionary measures to help our officials, who are doing a service for the country," said Dostum's spokesman, Sultan Faizy. He pointed out that seven people were killed recently when the Taliban attacked the Spanish Embassy a few blocks away. "There have been dozens of organized attacks that have caused lots of damage, death and injuries."
Outside Dostum's mansion, however, the metal scavengers have neither power nor protection. Each new wall that goes up in Kabul makes it harder for them to earn a living, yet they are no safer.
"Every day there is a suicide bomb going off around the city," said Fatah, his clothes torn and his face far older-looking than his 30 years.
"But he is the first vice president," he said, gesturing toward Dostum's house. "He has the right to have good security."
Sayed Salahuddin and Mohammad Sharif in Kabul contributed to this report.