Fires heed no politics, religion

SUN JOURNAL

Afghanistan: Like other public workers in Kabul, firefighters struggle with inadequate manpower and equipment.

March 31, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - The red-and-white Soviet firetruck roars through a cemetery and up to the burning electrical substation on the slopes of Kabul's Television Hill.

But when the firefighters of the Central Kabul station halt and jump into the dusty street, there is little they can do.

The metal shed serving the city's fragile electric grid is spitting sparks and flames. The firefighters, wearing black rain slickers and hats, know better than to pour water on an electrical fire, and they don't have the chemical extinguishers they need.

So the crew stands around with the neighborhood children, watching the substation finish burning. Then they climb aboard the 900-gallon pumper, back up with a belch of diesel smoke - scattering the curious crowd - and bounce back down the hill they have just climbed.

Col. Sardor Mohammed, a 35-year-old firefighter, lingers a few minutes and walks around the charred metal box. The city's fire service - like just about everything else in Afghanistan - has been crippled by decades of warfare.

"We have lost everything in the last 20 years," he mutters.

Five stations, nine trucks

The city of Kabul, a sprawling town with about 2 million residents, has just five fire stations and nine operating trucks. Kabul's 911 - the emergency phone number 13 - hasn't worked since the Taliban fled in November.

Col. Khalila Rahman, the equivalent of Kabul's fire chief, says his department once had more than 300 employees. Today, it has about half of that.

Kabul used to have a network of trained volunteers to help put out major fires. No more. Of about 40 serious fires in recent months, Rahman says, "three were so dangerous, it was impossible for us to control them."

Once considered a relatively cosmopolitan city, Kabul today is often compared to the set of a Mad Max movie - a hint of what a Western metropolis might look like after a nuclear strike.

But if Kabul has many problems, it also has foreign friends eager to help. As Rahman chats with a visitor, another drops in - Lt. Marko Yla-Kotola, a Finnish member of the international peacekeeping force in Kabul.

Would it be all right, Yla-Kotola asks politely, if the Finnish government brought in engineers to draw up plans, so the Finns could rebuild the central fire headquarters?

"Yes, of course, that would be fine," Rahman replies.

Rahman - a former Northern Alliance commander dressed in a flat Pakul mujahedeen cap and a jumpsuit - has a suggestion: Perhaps the Finns would be interested in rehabilitating the city's four other fire stations?

"That was in our plans, also," Lt. Yla-Kotola replies.

The British have been helping out, too, training firefighters in modern techniques at a base near Kabul Airport.

But before Afghanistan can rebuild itself - even with billions in assistance from the industrialized world - it has to survive the crucial coming months, perhaps years, while such services as police and fire departments, schools, hospitals and utilities are still barely functioning.

As it does in the industrial world, poverty causes a lot of Kabul's blazes.

During the past decade or so, looters yanked wiring out of many buildings and sold the scrap copper in Pakistan. Often, owners have rewired their buildings themselves with bits and pieces of wire taken from other, abandoned structures. The result is an electrician's nightmare.

"The lines are very old and tangled," says Eniatullah, a 38- year-old fire captain with Afghanistan's national fire academy, in southern Kabul.

"The residents, they put a lot of equipment on one line," he says. "This causes the burning of the lines, and then the house."

Even in homes with intact wiring, the electrical systems can hazardous. Because plugs are expensive - and there are many varieties used here, even in the same building - many Afghans don't bother with them. They strip the insulation from the ends of two wires and stick them straight into sockets.

Many Kabul residents heat their homes and even multistory offices with wood stoves. It's common to see taxis speeding down the boulevards with a family inside and a scraggly tree - prime firewood - tied to the roof.

Often, city residents cook with bottled gas. And it's common for merchants to use a lighted match to check to see whether any gas is left in a tank. Usually, nothing happens. But a few days ago when a man did that, Eniatullah says, the tank exploded, detonating a series of other explosions. The shopkeeper was killed, two others were injured and three stores were destroyed.

Not much left to burn

About 10 or 20 people die in fires in Kabul each year, the captain estimates. Given the condition of the Fire Department, that seems low. But Eniatullah explains that much of what can burn down here already has.

"Half of the homes were destroyed," he says.

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