A harsh land for man and beast

SUN JOURNAL

Kabul: Hunger - and posters - abound these days in the Afghani capital city.

November 27, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - In this country, even the lion at the zoo has a war story, and it goes like this:

In the early 1990s, when rival mujahedeen forces were tearing Kabul apart with bullets and shellfire, a foolhardy warrior decided to prove his lion-hearted nature by getting his picture taken with the real thing. He climbed into the cage, approached the lion and mugged for the camera in a combative pose.

The lion ate him for lunch.

The next day, an enraged family member came back to settle the score with a rocket-propelled grenade. Last-minute intervention by zoo-goers disrupted his aim, but the explosion blinded the lion in one eye. Nowadays Kabul's king of beasts looks old, ragged and skinny, and spends most of his day napping.

It is a forlorn place, this dusty zoo, where bent and empty cages outnumber the full ones.

"All of the cages used to be full," says zookeeper Abdul Sitar, 55. "But many were opened by bullets and bomb blasts. The animals escaped or were killed. We had two tigers, two lions, two leopards. But now?"

He shrugs, throwing up his hands as he looks around the place. There is little to see apart from the lion - a few baboons, some monkeys, a deer, a few eagles and owls, and a pair of stir-crazy wolves that snarl at each other as they trot back and forth nonstop.

Perhaps it's appropriate that the sanest, healthiest looking beasts in the bunch are three vultures, which periodically spread their six-foot wings. The rest of the animals look sullen and underfed, munching on leaves that fall from the trees, although Sitar says they're daily fed fresh meat and grain from the local bazaar.

The only clientele seems to be a bored cadre of young boys flitting from cage to cage, seeing which animals they can get a rise out of.

First they rattle the loose mesh front of the baboon cages, sending the four occupants into a frenzy of climbing and howling. Another goads the wolves, which only snarl louder. Then a third, about 12 years old, climbs a set of bars and scampers onto a narrow ledge running across the back wall of the lion's cage. He tightrope-walks down the ledge until he stands above the sleeping lion's head, 15 feet below.

"Scat," he hisses. "Scat!"

When that has no effect, the boy tosses a rock, landing it on the lion's mane. The beast rises without a growl and saunters to a dark opening in a concrete den, where he disappears for the morning.

By now, the Taliban's act of vandalism in destroying the giant stone Buddhas of Bamiyan is well known, especially to outraged archaeologists. After surviving more than 1,800 years of sun, wind and rain, the sculptures came crashing to the ground in a brown cloud of dust after the Taliban had them dynamited earlier this year.

From the Taliban's medieval point of view, images of any sort of face count as idolatry, and must be erased.

So it was that even a six-foot replica of the Bamiyan statues had to be destroyed. It once decorated a mural in the coffee shop of Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. Now all that is left is a gouged, chipped expanse of terracotta and plaster, with the rough outline of one Buddha still visible.

Similar defacements can be found here and there throughout Kabul. At the new headquarters of the Mine Detection and Dog Center, operations manager Sultan Mohammad Raufi points to a grand wood carving covering a wall behind his desk. It is a hunting scene, with snarling hounds tearing into a cornered stag.

The faces of the stag and each of the dogs, however, have been chipped and chiseled out.

The Northern Alliance is busy doing its part to fill the local void of graven images. On every street corner of Kabul, it seems, and on the windshields of the Toyota Land Cruisers favored by its senior officers, one may see posters bearing the face of an introspective Ahmad Shah Masood, the late lamented guerrilla leader. He led the Northern Alliance uprising before being assassinated by Taliban suicide bombers shortly before Sept. 11.

Supporters of political leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former and - he hopes - future president of Afghanistan, have plastered his picture around the city, as well. Although Rabbani has made it a point not to presumptuously move into the presidential palace, his image now adorns either side of the main entrance, where his armed followers stand guard.

At 4 a.m. each day, the whispering and nudging begin all across a city, a province, a country.

"Wake up," the voices in the cold darkness implore. It is time for breakfast and prayer. Time for a race against the sunrise before the start of another day of fasting.

So begins another day of Ramadan in Afghanistan, the holy month in which the prophet Mohammed received the messages from on high that became the Quran.

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