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Kabul traffic

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Afghan refugees making for Kabul, 1996

This was one of several features I wrote during a month-long stay in Kabul in the days after the Taleban takeover in 1996. Most of the action was on the front, which we had to visit several times a day, but I found the most intriguing stories in Kabul itself, as the collapsed city came to terms with its new overlords.

Minding the traffic, Afghan style.
By Jeremy Wagstaff

KABUL, Oct 22 (Reuter) – Not much is working in the war-weary Afghan capital of Kabul these days, except, it seems, the traffic police.

Rain or shine, war or peace, uniformed traffic cops stand at major intersections waving past a colourful array of vehicles, from rocket launchers driven by turbanned warriors to hand carts loaded with furniture pushed by old bearded men.

They may not exactly be the pride and joy of Kabul, but unlike most civil servants, these 600-odd traffic controllers have kept working through several changes of government, sieges, coups d’etat, street-fighting and three months without wages. “We are the only civil servants still working. It’s our job. We have to do it,” says Fakhuruddin, who at 41 holds the rank of major after 17 years on the force.

War or peace, being a traffic controller is no cushy career.

First there’s the salary: less than US$10 a month, and you have to buy the uniform yourself — nearly three months’ wages for a poorly-stitched bit of olive cloth and a white cap.

The outgoing government’s forces, led by commander Ahmad Shah Masood, took all the money with them when they fled in late September and the city’s new Taleban rulers have yet to pay up. “We hope the Taleban will pay our salaries but it depends on God. God is our sole provider,” says Azizorahman, 19, of the movement which rules with its own purist brand of Islam.

But things have got better under the Taleban, Abdullah Hat, 25, says, since at least their ubiquitous pickups — commandered for military use — try to follow the rules of the road. As if to illustrate the point, he races off blowing his whistle at a Toyota Land Cruiser filled with heavily-armed fighters driving the wrong way up a one-way street. Chastened, the jeep does a U-turn and goes the right way.

The only problem with the Taleban, the controllers say, is that since they are from the south, where the movement was born, they don’t know their way around Kabul and keep stopping to ask directions to the front line. “But they’re very nice about it,” says Zorahman.

All controllers interviewed said that despite the hazards, they always turn up for work, directing traffic and admonishing transgressors. In a city of barely roadworthy cars, this can be something of an art form; asked to cite examples, several controllers point out a long list of failings on a nearby taxi, from no licence plate, through bald tyres to non working headlights. The taxi-driver looks suitably sheepish and is let off.

Interviewed later, he says few controllers bother to stop traffic nowadays because the purist Taleban forbid them to take the bribes which supplemented their meagre income in the past.

Certainly the controllers seem at best erratic in their work. Most welcome the distraction of being interviewed, leaving the traffic to itself as bicycles, taxis, trucks, jeeps, hand carts and pony traps jostle noisily for room on Kabul’s unkempt streets.

Most controllers say things have gone downhill in the past few years. The traffic lights gave out four years ago, and with all the factional fighting that has wrought havoc in the city since 1992, respect for traffic rules has declined. “The worst thing about this job is that no-one is keen to follow the regulations. It’s a lawless situation while five years ago it was OK,” says Ziawoddin, 38.

Still, the traffic police are nothing if not dedicated. They remember at least four colleagues who have been killed by shelling in the line of duty in the past five years and Ziawoddin himself had a lucky escape a couple of years ago. “One day I was doing my job when a bomb hit over there and I got shrapnel in my rear. Two colleagues on duty helped me to hospital and of course as a result the traffic was chaos,” he reminisces.

Like most traffic policemen, they acknowledge they may not be particularly popular. Few passers-by stop to chat while cyclists and drivers do their best to ignore them. “It’s people’s judgement,” shrugs Farhad, 26, who has been guiding traffic for six years. “Certainly, so far I have not seen anyone coming up to say they are happy with what we do.”

But somehow their job remains the same, despite the ravages of war, near-anarchy and the prospect of further chaos. Unlike most government departments under the new administration, where the head has been replaced, their old boss is still in charge, albeit alongside a Taleban appointee.

None of the wardens can recall any significant change to their job over the years, except when their uniforms were altered from blue to olive under a Moscow-backed government in the 1980s.

And what will happen if fighting engulfs the city again?

“It won’t affect us. Any upheaval or change will have no effect on us,” says Hat, waving his red and white paddle at a passing Taleban jeep, which this time ignores him.

(c) Reuters Limited 1996

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