Rebuilding Afghanistan: Since 2002, War-Damaged Quarters of Kabul and Herat Have Been the Focus of a Programme to Conserve Important Historic Buildings, Including Houses, Mosques, Shrines and Public Facilities, While Upgrading Works Have Also Improved Living Conditions for Thousands of Residents

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HAVING SUFFERED THREE DECADES OF CONFLICT AND under-investment, the cities of Kabul and Herat seem to be making up for lost time. From places inhabited by those with nowhere else to go--backwaters in a country that saw a huge exodus of refugees--the urban centres of Afghanistan are now the place to be, and seem to be growing out of control.

In the face of an influx of returnees and migrants, which has resulted in a doubling of Kabul's population over the past six years, what's left of the infrastructure is overstretched, and property prices have soared. Eight out of ten families inhabit homes that they've taken the initiative to build 'informally' for themselves, without permission, usually on government land. As the value of this land rises, they find themselves in competition with the warlords, who have realised the potential for profit in capturing and selling on tracts of land that don't belong to them.

Meanwhile, municipal officials who stayed the course during the conflict continue to cling to utopian master-plans that were prepared 30 years ago. Dazzled by the gleaming mirror glass on new high-rise developments that have risen on Kabul's skyline, visiting donors talk excitedly of how this embodies their vision of cities as 'engines of growth', despite the harsh reality that is staring them in the face.

SLUMMING IT

It's in a corner of this reality, along the labyrinthine alleys of Kabul's old city, that the Historic Cities Programme of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) began, in 2002, to try to safeguard the surviving historical fabric. Long in decline by the time inter-factional fighting forced residents to flee their homes, the historic quarters were regarded by officials as little more than a slum.

Displaced families began to resettle there after 1995, reestablishing themselves amid the rubble, landmines and unexploded ordnance. Their determination has proved to be more than a match for government planners who wanted to comprehensively redevelop an area that, for the most part, has reverted to the traditional pattern of settlement--albeit with far fewer historic buildings.

The AKTC, an agency of the Aga Khan Development Network, supports the physical, social, cultural and economic development of urban communities in the Islamic world by engaging in the built environment. Its intervention in the old city of Kabul began with the restoration of the war-damaged Uzbekha mosque in the neighbourhood of Asheqan wa Arefan, which is home to ten percent of the inhabitants of the historic quarter and, with more than 250 residents per hectare, is the most densely populated place in the city. With few craftsmen available with the ability or experience to restore the fine decoration in the mosque, the AKTC provided intensive on-the-job training for plasterers and carpenters. By 2005, the mosque was back in public use and has since provided an important focus for the war-affected community.

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This initial project led to the restoration of several other mosques and shrines, the Shuturkhana hammam, a traditional community bath-house--vital in an area where many homes lack adequate bathing facilities--the brick-domed Pakhtafurushi madrasa, and a dozen or more of the most important surviving homes. Many of these buildings retained elaborate internal plaster decoration and carved timber posts and screens. Together with the provision of onsite building advice and access to small-scale grants for repairs of traditional homes, the conservation work has generated significant local employment, while providing opportunities for residents to train and learn new skills.

The work is overseen by a team of a dozen Afghan professionals, working under the management of Jolyon Leslie, a South African architect who has lived in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years. He explains that 'conserving mosques and shrines has contributed to a sense of community in neighbourhoods whose inhabitants were displaced. …