The streets in Afghanistan are overrun with the smell of rotting garbage. Abandoned pallets are held up by wooden pallets. Mercifully, because of the weather, the roads are pristine.
When I came to Kabul, it was a different story.
This is my adopted city. It is where I live, work and, to a certain extent, play. On the streets, my favorite memory is wading around in the oil-black muck; a combination of filth and petroleum blended with filthy organic matter. It was unpleasant, alarming and exhilarating, whether that was walking around in tight culottes or trying to pick my way through food and plastic bags floating down the drain.
Often called the “Pink City,” Kabul still has people living in mud huts, and that is reflected in the pervasive smell of human waste and the filth left by decades of war. But Kabul is also a city of progress, of skyscrapers, of expansive parks, of restaurant with flower paintings on their walls, which now seem like a symbol of brilliance in the midst of despair.
Kabul can be very exciting; it is a series of peaks and valleys, one passing the other. Half of Kabul’s population of about 3 million lives in the capital city, the rest in provinces. But the national reality is that more than half of the country lives on less than $2 per day, and the country is in the grip of the worst drought in over a century. At the same time, the Taliban, or more precisely, Afghan intelligence, have been systematically tracking down the women’s rights activists in the capital.
This is the landlocked country, one of the largest in the world, which relies on billions of dollars in foreign aid. It has been struggling for years, always seeking higher levels of development in the face of economic weakness and continued military conflict.
Now, however, the urban poor — the population of the capital is mostly living in makeshift houses, or homes made of rubble, the result of years of war — are reaching an all-time low, and I have a feeling that the poverty here will send millions of Afghans fleeing.
In my over 20 years in Kabul, I have rarely seen such a widespread abject poverty. In the eastern part of the country, in areas where the Taliban are strongest, many residents have survived by digging in the dirt and scavenging on dumps. They have survived by eating worms, grass and snow.
In many parts of the country, such as the east, the south and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where hard-hit farming communities lost their livestock, villagers and businesses are gone. One of the poorest provinces in the country is Helmand, which includes Marjah, a major battle fought in the summer of 2011 where the Taliban defeated Afghan security forces. Many people who lived there have been displaced and thousands of people have moved to relative safety in Pakistan.
In Marjah, a thriving district during the war, families in the district center were struck by hunger and land disputes caused by landmines laid during the conflict.
Marjah is now a desert, more of a wasteland. There is no tilling of dirt or farming of grass and straw. There is a stark contrast between the bare desert landscape and the ancient snow-capped mountains, where the small cold spikes of green give way to long blades of dusty brown grass. Nowhere is there a smell of rancid dead animals or human waste, but there is a stench of degradation.
The town once seemed like paradise compared to the barren desert this place now leaves behind. The school is completely abandoned. The government and the American forces helped build the infrastructure here, and this is the result.
In this desert, the streets stink of stench. I have seen many old people leaving these streets to visit relatives on the other side of town. The change from the prosperous Marjah to the barren wasteland is so drastic that it can easily be seen by an asthmatic patient.
Afghanistan is like a sick patient, never fully recovered from the brutal years of warfare. The country is in tremendous financial trouble. The continued violence has forced millions to leave, while others are trapped on the edges of the capital looking for refuge.
The government, the American forces and the international community all recognize the poverty of the country, but will also say there is no other option. It is a war-ravaged, dusty and desolate country. A sick patient waiting for something — even a hopeful doctor — to heal it.