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Christine Aziz describes how the fate of a once-noble beast has
come to resemble that of the people of Kabul, Afghanistan,
on the eve of the takeover by Taleban fundamentalists.

Somehow a sightseeing tour of Kabul seems an obscenity. Amir Shah, our taxi driver, is insisting on taking us on what he calls the ‘scenic route’. Everything is referred to in the past tense: ‘This was our university’, ‘This was the Palace’, ‘This was one of our finest hotels’. There is a retrospective pride in Shah’s voice which has to be responded to. ‘It must have been lovely,’ I mumble.

‘I’ll take you to the zoo,’ Amir Shah says in an attempt to cheer us up. We pull up outside what must have been a pleasant garden, except all that’s left now are twisted stumps of trees, their branches torn off by Kabul’s residents for firewood. Cages line the walkways, but the bars are twisted steel and the walls nothing more than rubble. ‘Most of the animals and birds have been stolen and cooked,’ Amir Shah explains. ‘But we do have a lion,’ he says in an effort to make the visit worthwhile. ‘I don’t remember his name anymore. I just call him “Lion”.’

Lion lies in the only cage that remains intact, his head resting sulkily on his huge front paws. His eyes are missing, and his face is heavily scarred. His mane of hair has been reduced to a few tufts. We stare at the sightless, bald lion who is now making a half-hearted attempt to stand up, and as he shuffles forward Amir Shah tells us Lion’s story.

‘Some mujahideen came to visit the zoo and they saw Lion. They goaded one of their friends into climbing into the cage, and dared him to touch Lion. Lion was sleeping, so he got out unhurt. Then the mujahideen dared him to go in again, but this time he touched a female and Lion attacked him. The mujahideen’s brother threw in a hand grenade which blew up Lion’s face, but it was too late. Lion killed him.’

It was hard to believe that the mangy specimen now growling weakly in front of us could have managed such aggression. ‘Lion was taken to the Red Cross hospital,’ Amir Shah said. ‘He was in the best hospital in Kabul, and the doctors tried to save his sight. But they couldn’t. He was too badly injured. They did the best they could.’

The people of Kabul clearly want Lion to live. It’s as if this proud animal has become a symbol for the city itself and the grisly drama a metaphor for the senseless battles that have been played out in the city’s streets. Both Lion and Kabul are the victims of a wanton destruction inspired by a warped belief in ‘honour’ and an obstinate, macho pride. If Lion dies then the foolishness of men has triumphed.

We settle silently into the back of Amir Shah’s taxi. But by now we are in respectful awe of this man who can laugh, smile and joke while guiding us around such utter desolation. Like other Kabul residents he displays a courage and resilience that belies 16 years of war which began when the Russians arrived to occupy the city in 1979, and which turned into a civil war the moment they left, ten years later. Whatever destruction the Russians wreaked on Afghanistan, the mujahideen of the various warring factions managed to continue afterwards. Schools and universities were looted, books and equipment were sent to Pakistan to be sold, water pipes were used as target practice – making the water rehabilitation programme of a number of aid agencies almost impossible – homes were destroyed in the crossfire as rival groups fought each other from different ends of the city.

The sun begins to set, turning the snow on the mountains that surround Kabul a delicate rose-pink. Amir Shah starts to sing a song about love and a beautiful woman and then turns off into a side street. He stops the car. ‘I want to show you where I used to live,’ he says and ushers us out, warning us not to step off the road because of the landmines that litter the residential areas. He points to a wall standing amid a pile of rubble. ‘That was my house,’ he says. We notice that part of the wall has been freshly bricked up. ‘That was the front door once,’ he explains. ‘But I bricked it up to stop people getting into the garden.’

We can see no sign of a garden until we notice the branches of a tree rising out of the rubble. ‘I didn’t want people coming into my home and tearing down the tree for firewood. I wanted to protect it for when my family and I return home,’ he said. In the fading light we notice that the tree is covered in white, sweet-smelling blossom.

Christine Aziz is a freelance journalist based in Amsterdam.

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Issue 285 Contents
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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 285 magazine cover This article is from the November 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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