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Sun, Sep 28, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Capitalism intensifies class divisions in Afghanistan

US$60,000 cars were more rare before the US-led invasion, but most can afford only a US$70 bicycle

AP , KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

An unidentified Afghan woman dressed in a traditional burqa, a head-to-toe coverall, holds a boy's hand as they cross one of Kabul's busy streets on Wednesday. The number of cars in Kabul skyrocketed after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 and traffic jams are frequent.

PHOTO: AP

Most of the Afghans at Kabul's Dekepak car market murmured in admiration at the shiny silver Mercedes Benz, with tinted windows, leather seats, air conditioning, satellite navigation and a voice-activated CD player. Price: US$60,000.

It's not a car for everyone in this war-shattered country where most people live in poverty and are considered lucky if they have a job that pays US$20 a month. Twenty percent of children die before the age of five.

But a tiny number of Kabul residents are rich -- and not shy to show it off, driving around the city's streets in the latest Toyota Land Cruisers or Lexus sedans.

"This is such a shame. People are hungry here and they are buying this," said Azizullah, an old man, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

Two years after US-led forces ousted the hardline Taliban militia, Afghanistan's economy is heavily dependent on foreign aid and is struggling to recover from two decades of war. It is also crippled by corruption and thieving warlords, who rule in most of the country.

While cars were a rare commodity during the Taliban's rule and Kabul's streets were relatively quiet, the city is now packed with vehicles of all types: from rickety bicycles and Russian-made jalopies to luxury cars and sports utility vehicles -- and even the occasional tank.

"We have enough customers willing to pay US$50,000 for this car," salesman Muhammed Khaled said, pointing at a glittering black Toyota Landcruiser. "Customers are either foreigners, important commanders or government officials."

Influx

Kabul's population has grown from about 1 million during the Taliban's rule to 3 million today -- the jump attributable to returning refugees, an influx of foreigners and villagers flocking to the city in search of opportunities.

Few drivers obey, or are even aware of, traffic laws and the streets are often jammed day and night.

Trying to impose some order in the exhaust-filled chaos is a daunting task for the city's cops.

"I think no traffic police in the world could cope with this," officer Waheedullah said above the din of tooting vehicles and the shouts of their impatient drivers.

Some Afghans have spent their life savings on secondhand cars and make a living ferrying the scores of aid workers, journalists and other foreigners around the city.

At one car market in the city's Kotal-e-Khair Khana neighborhood, Hamid Shah, 37, was busy negotiating a price for a 25-year-old Soviet-made yellow Volga with a dented hood, broken rear window and dilapidated interior. A deal was clinched at US$800.

"Its not cheap, but I must buy this car, otherwise my family would starve," he said.

His previous car, a 1980 Toyota, fell apart after being driven for about 400,000km over Afghanistan's pothole-filled roads, Shah said.

In another part of the city, a dozen Afghans were busy repairing bicycles -- the most popular form of transport.

"Bicycles are the best ... a good one will get you anywhere and its cheap -- only US$70," mechanic Abdullah Jan said.

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