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5:36 a.m. A young muezzin recites the call to prayer at a mosque in central Kabul. Five times a day, minarets across the city echo with the muezzin's call. can't

5:36 a.m. A young muezzin recites the call to prayer at a mosque in central Kabul. Five times a day, minarets across the city echo with the muezzin's call. can't (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

5:36 a.m. A young muezzin recites the call to prayer at a mosque in central Kabul. Five times a day, minarets across the city echo with the muezzin's call. can't

5:36 a.m. A young muezzin recites the call to prayer at a mosque in central Kabul. Five times a day, minarets across the city echo with the muezzin's call. can't (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

6:17 a.m. Men pray at a mosque in central Kabul.

6:17 a.m. Men pray at a mosque in central Kabul. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

6:42 a.m. Vegetable sellers set up shop at Kabul's main wholesale market for fruits and vegetables. can't

6:42 a.m. Vegetable sellers set up shop at Kabul's main wholesale market for fruits and vegetables. can't (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

7:00 a.m. A man prepares dough for paratha, a fried bread often eaten for breakfast in Kabul, outside the city's main wholesale produce market.

7:00 a.m. A man prepares dough for paratha, a fried bread often eaten for breakfast in Kabul, outside the city's main wholesale produce market. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

7:18 a.m. Inzebat-e Shahri (City Discipline) police officers stand at attention under Afghanistan's only highway overpass in western Kabul. Inzebat-e Shahri officers are placed at busy intersections around the city to showcase the professionalism of the Kabul police.

7:18 a.m. Inzebat-e Shahri (City Discipline) police officers stand at attention under Afghanistan's only highway overpass in western Kabul. Inzebat-e Shahri officers are placed at busy intersections around the city to showcase the professionalism of the Kabul police. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

7:20 a.m. Day laborers wait for work in the Kot-e Sangi neighborhood in west Kabul.

7:20 a.m. Day laborers wait for work in the Kot-e Sangi neighborhood in west Kabul. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

7:51 a.m. Rush-hour traffic in central Kabul. The city was built for about 500,000 people and has swelled to a population of 5 to 6 million, badly straining the road system.

7:51 a.m. Rush-hour traffic in central Kabul. The city was built for about 500,000 people and has swelled to a population of 5 to 6 million, badly straining the road system. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

8:04 a.m. A man opens his shop in the Mandayi neighborhood of central Kabul.

8:04 a.m. A man opens his shop in the Mandayi neighborhood of central Kabul. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

8:10 a.m. Nut shops in Mandayi Market, Kabul's main shopping hub. Shoppers and merchants haggle over everything from rice to hunting rifles.

8:10 a.m. Nut shops in Mandayi Market, Kabul's main shopping hub. Shoppers and merchants haggle over everything from rice to hunting rifles. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

8:14 a.m. A man fills shopkeepers' teapots at Mandayi Market in central Kabul. A Kabul breakfast — along with every other meal — is not complete without green tea.

8:14 a.m. A man fills shopkeepers' teapots at Mandayi Market in central Kabul. A Kabul breakfast — along with every other meal — is not complete without green tea. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

8:24 a.m. Women eat breakfast on a central Kabul sidewalk.

8:24 a.m. Women eat breakfast on a central Kabul sidewalk. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

8:29 a.m. Municipal workers pick up trash at an intersection in central Kabul.

8:29 a.m. Municipal workers pick up trash at an intersection in central Kabul. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

8:39 a.m. Pigeons outside the Shah-e Doshamshera Mosque, on the banks of the Kabul River, one of the capital's few remaining historic buildings.

8:39 a.m. Pigeons outside the Shah-e Doshamshera Mosque, on the banks of the Kabul River, one of the capital's few remaining historic buildings. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

10:30 a.m. Men push a firewood cart down a busy road in the Sher Pur neighborhood of Kabul. Despite the glut of cars in the city, much of the goods in Kabul are transported by foot power or on carts drawn by horses and donkeys.

10:30 a.m. Men push a firewood cart down a busy road in the Sher Pur neighborhood of Kabul. Despite the glut of cars in the city, much of the goods in Kabul are transported by foot power or on carts drawn by horses and donkeys. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

11:19 a.m. Money changers at the bustling Sarai Shazadah money market, Kabul's biggest. With business done almost entirely in cash transactions and many Afghans living and working in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, the market is crucial to the local economy.

11:19 a.m. Money changers at the bustling Sarai Shazadah money market, Kabul's biggest. With business done almost entirely in cash transactions and many Afghans living and working in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, the market is crucial to the local economy. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

12:30 p.m. Lunchtime at the upscale Gulbahar Center, a modern mall in central Kabul.

12:30 p.m. Lunchtime at the upscale Gulbahar Center, a modern mall in central Kabul. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

12:35 p.m. Children play video games at an arcade in the Gulbahar Center mall.

12:35 p.m. Children play video games at an arcade in the Gulbahar Center mall. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

2:25 p.m. A couple take a walk through Babur Gardens, an ancient site in southeastern Kabul that erupts in color in the spring. In deeply conservative Afghanistan, the gardens is a popular place for couples to meet far from the gaze of their families.

2:25 p.m. A couple take a walk through Babur Gardens, an ancient site in southeastern Kabul that erupts in color in the spring. In deeply conservative Afghanistan, the gardens is a popular place for couples to meet far from the gaze of their families. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

2:56 p.m. Children at a playground in the Deh Bori neighborhood, in western Kabul.

2:56 p.m. Children at a playground in the Deh Bori neighborhood, in western Kabul. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

3:17 p.m. A soccer game at a park in western Kabul.

3:17 p.m. A soccer game at a park in western Kabul. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

3:49 p.m. A traditional Afghan bakery on Darulaman Road in western Kabul.

3:49 p.m. A traditional Afghan bakery on Darulaman Road in western Kabul. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

4:02 p.m. A woman walks past Darulaman Palace, a former residence of the king of Afghanistan in western Kabul that was destroyed during Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s.

4:02 p.m. A woman walks past Darulaman Palace, a former residence of the king of Afghanistan in western Kabul that was destroyed during Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

4:08 p.m. Young men walk the grounds of Darulaman Palace in west Kabul.

4:08 p.m. Young men walk the grounds of Darulaman Palace in west Kabul. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

5:06 p.m. A man directs pigeons from his rooftop in the Qale Musa neighborhood of central Kabul. Just before sunset, many such pigeon handlers will send their birds on circular flights above the city, a practice known as kaftar bazi (dove play).

5:06 p.m. A man directs pigeons from his rooftop in the Qale Musa neighborhood of central Kabul. Just before sunset, many such pigeon handlers will send their birds on circular flights above the city, a practice known as kaftar bazi (dove play). (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

5:30 p.m. Sunset over the city from Wazir Akbar Khan hill in central Kabul.

5:30 p.m. Sunset over the city from Wazir Akbar Khan hill in central Kabul. (Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes)

KABUL — Vibrant and chaotic, ringed by mountains and choked by smog, this Central Asian capital is at once all of Afghanistan in one city and nothing like much of the rest of the country.

Afghanistan’s ethnic groups are all represented here — more and more so as Afghans from the countryside continue to flock to the city, fleeing violence and unemployment. And yet this sprawling city of 5 to 6 million is a world away from the rural world most Afghans inhabit.

The braying of donkeys mingles with the constant beeping of car horns in air thick with the scent of grilled meat and diesel. Illegally built mud-wall huts scale steep mountainsides overlooking sparkling new high-rises built on a boom of international money. Maimed war veterans beg for money outside brand-new malls.

Once a sleepy capital, Kabul has seen its population explode since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, straining resources and causing traffic gridlock that can last all day.

The wedding-cake palaces of warlords and the high-walled compounds of aid groups look out onto gritty, dusty streets, where kids peddle chewing gum and charcoal-smoke blessings. Kabul’s open-air markets are bustling and colorful, with Kabulis haggling over everything from spices to electronics.

Perched at roughly 6,000 feet above sea level, the city is surrounded by mountains offering a dazzling backdrop that reminds a visitor why this used to be a tourist destination. But those days are long gone, and despite being spared much of the violence of the last 12 years of war, the city is nonetheless on edge, as international troops leave Afghanistan and war still rages in the provinces.

druzin.heath@stripes.com Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes


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