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CURRENT ISSUE:  February 4, 2008
VOL. 46, NO. 3   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
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Prayers for Christian Unity
AfghanistanÍs Kabul divided
by extreme poverty, great wealth
Students in Kabul attend a rehabilitation center for youths who have experienced trauma and violence.
Chris duffey PHOTO

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNS) — Not more than a 45-minute drive separates two areas illustrating the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterize Afghanistan.

In the center of Kabul stand newly constructed wedding halls, mansions and at least one multilevel shopping mall. The city, which officially has a population of 3 million but may have as many as 4.5 million, is one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the world.

The mall has amenities — a coffee bar, camera and computer stores, and cash machines that dispense both Afghan and American currencies — that would have been unimaginable in the summer of 2001. During that time, Kabul was in its last months under Taliban rule and recovering from years of warfare and Soviet control. It was an exhausted, denuded and dispirited place.

Today, poor families live on the outskirts of the city, in the wind-swept hills that make for some of the best of Kabul’s famed kite flying.

Some Afghans reside in new homes built with funds from U.S.-based churches and humanitarian groups. But for many, the amenities at the center of Kabul remain out of reach.

ABOVE: A boy plays in front of a tent for displaced families in a western suburb of Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 28. Aid groups and monitoring agencies say there are at least 100,000 and as many as 300,000 internally displaced people in the country.

BELOW: A new shopping center in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul is one example of new prosperity for a small number of the city’s residents. The mall has a coffee bar, camera and computer stores, and cash machines that dispense both Afghan and American currencies.
A couple, who asked to be identified only as Malik and Bassri, and their four children, ages 5 to 14, have experienced years of displacement that took them from their home in the city of Jalalabad to a refugee camp in Pakistan, back to Jalalabad, then to Kabul in 2001.

Arriving in Kabul did not ease their problems. For years the family lived in a dark, lightless and cramped hillside cave just a few feet away from where they live now. Bassri, her face completely veiled, said the cave could have collapsed at any moment — a continual source of anxiety for the family.

Nearby, Faqirullah Hamidi lives in a crowded two-room home with his wife, Nafisa, and their eight children. Hamidi said he is his family’s stay-at-home caretaker due to war wounds he suffered during “the Soviet time.”

While relieved to have his own home after bouts of homelessness and temporary housing, Hamidi said, “We want a secure country; we want peace in this country; we want development in this country.”
A recent report by the U.N. Development Program noted gains in education and health care in Afghanistan, as well as some economic progress in the country, where the Islamic-fundamentalist Taliban ruled from 1996 until U.S.-led forces ousted them in 2001.

But the report also warned that “the needs of many remain unfulfilled” and noted that Afghanistan’s measures of humanitarian benchmarks like health, life expectancy and education remained the lowest among its neighbors. That placed Afghanistan 174th out of 178 countries, with only four countries — all in sub-Saharan Africa — with lower marks.

Paul Hicks, Afghanistan country representative for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, called poverty “the single biggest threat” Afghanistan is facing.

And the harsh winter season takes its worst toll on the poor at a time of year when there is little agricultural activity, “the backbone of livelihoods for most people,” he told Catholic News Service in late December.

“There is destitute poverty in Kabul, hidden behind tall walls or behind the veil of a begging widow whose children live mainly on tea and bread,” Hicks said from Herat, in western Afghanistan. “Economic development in Afghanistan will only be superficial if there is not a new focus and commitment on relieving the suffering of the extreme poor.”

Hicks told CNS the solution to the country’s problems is “not a quick fix.”

He explained that “it takes years to develop a quality education system and many years for youth to have enough years in the education system to contribute to their country in meaningful ways.”

When asked if there are signs of progress in the country, Hicks noted the development of the cities.
“Cities are modernizing quickly, with modern communications; mobile phone networks cover a large section of the population even in fairly remote areas,” he said. Hicks added that computers are commonly used and the roads, such as the highways connecting major urban centers, are improving.

“The average person can get information from a range of print media and several private and public television stations, literacy rates are improving and more children are attending schools than ever before,” he added.

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