‘Born free’: War-torn Kabul pulls down concrete blast walls

kabul-blast-wallKABUL: The blast walls that cut through Kabul like ramparts are being pulled down, part of a counter-intuitive makeover by local officials who argue the move will give the city’s war-weary residents a psychological boost.

The government in early July began removing the maze of concrete barriers that have proliferated across the Afghan capital in the 16 years since the US invaded Afghanistan at the height of the Taliban’s power.

The bid to remove the walls is illogical to some, coming as it does after attacks in Kabul have surged in recent years, making it one of the deadliest places in the country for civilians.

But it is civilians who are driving the push, says Najibullah Alokazy, head of the project.

“This problem was raised by the population, for them the city looks like a city at war,” he said.

“It will help to decrease the traffic and it will have its tangible effects on the view of the city.”

The maze of concrete barricades — shaped like a wide-based inverted ‘T’ to provide protection from bomb blasts — shield the city’s most prominent inhabitants, from government officials to foreign embassy staff.

In just one of the 22 districts that make up the city of Kabul, there are more than 3,000 blast walls, according to Alokazay, while the compound that houses the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan boasts more than 8,000.

But their spread has been poorly regulated, with many of Kabul’s most high-profile residents, including former presidents and one-time warlords, building concrete shields that stretch far into the road.

“When a person became a member of the parliament, or the smallest agent of the government, they all had T-Walls to protect their houses,” Mustafa Sharify, the head of Beeroj Logistics Services, a firm that installs the blast walls, told AFP.

Residents say the walls — which block views of once-wide streets and much loved landmarks — do not make them feel safe. In fact, they represent a threat.

“It doesn’t help security in the streets. It helps only for their house,” said Kabul resident Yama Rayeen, gesturing towards one of the tall concrete barriers, which range in height from three to seven metres (10 to 23 feet).

“If you block the roads it creates a lot of problems: the more you create traffic congestion, the more you have people trapped in case of an explosion.”

Such traffic congestion presents an opportunity for the Taliban and other militant groups, who have targeted Kabul’s roads with devastating regularity.

In late May, a truck bomb exploded during morning rush hour inside the city’s diplomatic quarter, killing more than 150 people and injuring hundreds, in the most deadly attack to hit the country since 2001.

While on Monday yet another bomb tore through early commuters, killing at least 26 people when it struck a bus full of government employees on their way to work.

‘Getting rid of the cages’

The government plans to remove the blast walls that have been put up by private citizens — many without permission — but those outside embassies and government buildings, high-value targets for the Taliban insurgency, will remain.

Nine hundred walls have so far been removed, and officials say the process has gone smoothly.

Each section of wall weighs more than a tonne and a battalion of tractors, under police protection, have been deployed across the city to remove the walls.

“We are very happy to get rid of these cages. We are born free, we don’t accept restrictions,” said shopkeeper Ghulam Daoud Ghamugusar, as he observed a blast wall being dismantled, a cup of sweet tea in hand.

But while the government is tearing down the walls, the deteriorating security situation has prompted NATO to strengthen its own defences, doubling the row of barriers that surround its Kabul headquarters.

The “green zone” — a restricted area bristling with barbed wire, that ordinary Afghans are barred from entering — is also expanding as the resurgent Taliban has repeatedly shown its ability to strike inside the capital.

Since January more than 1,500 civilians have died across the country in attacks, with nearly one in five killed in Kabul, according to figures recently released by the United Nations.

“It was a beautiful city,” retired teacher Ahmad Jan told AFP wistfully, nostalgic for the days before blast walls and checkpoints.

“You could go from the Ariana Square to the presidential palace without anyone stopping you. I can’t imagine we’ll ever go back to those days.”