Inside the Crumbling Walls of Kabul’s Abandoned Palace
Built in the early 1920s by King Amanullah Khan, the palace was intended as a symbol of Afghanistan’s modernization. That purpose was short-lived. The king was forced from power by religious zealots at the end of the decade, and all of his liberal reforms were rescinded.
Over the coming years, Darul Aman would serve as a medical school, a raisin warehouse, a refugee camp, and various government ministries until Afghanistan’s civil war made it an important strategic position. As an improvised fortress, it was taken and retaken repeatedly by opposing forces.
Now, a small unit of the Afghan National Army occupies Darul Aman. We pulled up to the barbed wire fence surrounding the palace, got out, and shut our doors quietly. The soldiers were lounging under a portico drinking tea, their assault rifles leaning rakishly against the pillars. We smiled and waved casually. They waved back.
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Afghanistan’s Great Wall of Bones
Everyone knows that walls are more metaphor than impenetrable brick and mortar.
This is especially true in Kabul, where concrete blasts slabs and giant, stone-filled wire baskets called Hesco barriers ring high value targets within the city, creating, as they did in Iraq, a sense of perpetual siege.
However, there is one wall in Kabul that is useless in this war, but provides a physical timeline of Afghanistan’s history of conflict, which stretches back more than a thousand years.
The Great Wall of Kabul runs atop the Sher Darwaza (Lion’s Door) mountains, towering over the city below. Hard historical fact is difficult to come by in a place where rumors are as ubiquitous as weathered faces, but legend has it that the wall was the project of King Zamburak Shaw in the sixth century, built to keep out Muslim invaders. It played a role in subsequent wars against the British invaders, as well as Afghanistan’s own civil war in the mid-90s.
The wall’s creation story is a dark one. Zamburak was said to have been a brutal monarch, forcing all his male subjects to work on the wall. Those who refused or became too sick to continue were said to have been killed on the spot, their bones encased within the wall, which is almost ten-feet thick in some places.
But along with the alleged bones, the wall also contains some poetic justice. One tale has it that King Zamburak was visiting the wall to see its progress when he was killed by his own workers/subjects. They buried his bones along with the others in the wall.
BEASTS OF BURDEN - PART 1
Searching for Illicit Animal-Fighting Rings in Kabul
VICE correspondent Gelareh Kiazand travels to Kabul in search of illicit gambling rings where men bet on quail fights, buzkashi (it’s like polo, but with a headless goat), and dog fights. But first she has to find Dardar, the only figure in Kabul’s gambling world who can get our crew into the betting circle.
A Mercy Killing in Kabul
The restaurant opens to the street and the jumble of Kabul’s downtown bazaar.
Stray dogs move in uneven packs past vendors whose listing burlap stalls lean into a quicksand of low lying fog. Police flatten the tires of illegally parked cars and the cars sink into the mud and potholes of the ruined road wheezing air in an odd sort of gasping unison while their irate owners shout obscenities at the police. In the sky above this splintered section of city, a plane’s white contrail cuts lazy curls that vanish almost as fast.
Inside the restaurant, wood tables full of bearded men wrapped in shawls crowd the uneven floor, the air heavy, the room seeming to swell and pulse against the smudged walls with the odor of sweat and unwashed bodies and the heat from burning charcoal. I see no place to sit. Then a man waves to me and points at a space open beside him.
I wash my hands in a sink by the door. Frigid water trickles from the faucet. A cook stands nearby in clothes blackened with grease; behind him hangs the carcass of a lamb, its fur a bundle at his feet, a bloody knife entangled in the matted hair. He hacks off chunks of meat and throws them into a pan popping with oil; then, as it browns, he cracks an egg over the meat. The yolk slides off and dances in the hissing, popping oil until it floats white and bubbly. I shake my wet hands, and the cook throws me a grimed washcloth to dry them. I hand it back to him and make my way through the crowd toward the table where the man who had waved me over waits.
He tells me his name, Ghul Rahman. Deep lines river out from around his eyes and mouth. Beside him sits a gaunt man who stares at me as do the rest of the men seated at the table, a singular contained attention focused entirely on me. Westerners don’t often go downtown by themselves for fear of being kidnapped or targeted in some other way. A drive-by shooting perhaps or a bomb or a rogue Afghan policeman emptying his gun into the chest of a western contractor. But I get more than a little stir crazy remaining behind the walls of my hotel when I am not working until I get hit with the feeling that I must leave, go somewhere. However, as an American in Afghanistan, I remain caged no matter what I do. There is a quality of “whites only” when I leave my hotel for some other place—a restaurant usually—considered safe for Westerners. Afghans are not allowed in these places and armed guards stand at every entrance.
So today, I’ve decided to venture out on my own away from the sanctum of my hotel, restaurants and other safe retreats. With so many eyes on me, however, I wonder with the growing unease of a child who cavalierly entered a dark room on a dare only to imagine the sounds of ghosts, if I’ve made a terrible mistake.
“Where are you from?” Rahman says leaning back as if he needs to regard me from a distance.
“United States,” I tell him. “Journalist. Where did you learn English?”
“The university. Do you need a translator?”
“No. I have one.”
BROKEN HEARTS, LOST MINDS, AND MISSING LIMBS - IN AFGHANISTAN, THE FRONTLINE IS EVERYWHERE
Above: Amputees take a break from exercise at the International Committee of the Red Cross Orthopedic Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 2012.
We stand by the bed of Mohamad Doad in the paraplegic ward of Kabul’s International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Orthopedic Center.
Aziz Ahmad, my Afghan colleague, translates Mohamad’s grievances.
“He says he hates American soldiers,” Aziz tells me.
“Why does he hate the US?” I ask. “He’s a policeman. The US trained him to fight the Taliban.”
“He says he saw three families killed by coalition forces. If he gets better, he says he will kill American forces himself.”
“But he’s willing to speak with me?”
“So he can remember your face, he says, and kill you when he is well.”
Eleven-year-old Mariam, who lost a leg after stepping on a landmine, rests after physical therapy.
Mohamad, who is 23 but looks no older than 14, was shot by the Taliban last spring. Across the hall is an examination and exercise room where recent amputees learn to operate their new prosthetic limbs. Most of these patients have lost a hand or leg to land mines or rocket-propelled grenades—some of them as long ago as the 1979 Russian invasion, others in the more recent fighting between American troops and the Taliban.
I wedge my pen between the pages of my notepad and consider Mohamad. I am an American reporter. Aziz and I have worked together in Afghanistan since 2004. On this trip, I am reporting on the consequences of more than 30 years of war by spending time with a handful of its victims.
I arrived in early July and stayed through August. I had hoped to come earlier, but Aziz warned me in an email that, at the time, I would not be safe. In January, just six months before my arrival, a video surfaced showing US Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. A month later, US troops burned dozens of copies of the Koran, sparking days of deadly riots across the country and attacks on American forces. Then, in March, a US soldier was charged with shooting to death 16 civilians after entering their homes in Kandahar province. US officials apologized for the incident, but their remorse failed to quell protests and attacks that killed at least 30 people, including six US soldiers. And in the weeks before I arrived, the Pentagon reported increasing numbers of American-trained Afghan police recruits turning their guns on US soldiers.
“This is not a good time for you to visit,” Aziz had said when he picked me up at Kabul International Airport. “Everyone is very angry with America.”