Wed, Nov 12, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Property boom highlights Kabul's wealth gap

THROUGH THE ROOF Houses in the prosperous Wazir Akbar Khan area that two years ago could be rented for as little as US$200 a month now go for up to US$25,000


Two years after the fall of the Taliban, vast swathes of the Afghan capital are bombed-out testimonies to decades of conflict, but property prices are soaring even as thousands of returning refugees and displaced people wonder how they will survive the winter.

Refugees find shelter in tents and blasted ruins while across town in Kabul's affluent Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, which emerged from decades of conflict relatively unscathed, rents have soared more than 20-fold.

Kabul fell to anti-Taliban US-backed forces two years ago this Thursday.

Some 2.5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since, with a large portion swelling the Afghan capital. Some 1,100 families are living in tents on public land.

"Rents in Wazir Akbar Khan and adjacent Shar-i-Naw are now in the range of US$3,000 to US$25,000 dollars while the same houses rented for US$150 to US$300 dollars before November 2001, even under the Soviets," said Mahmood, who owns the Wazir Akbar Khan Property Agency.

Thirty-year-old European-style houses sell for between US$350,000 and US$1 million, in a country where per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is among the lowest in the world at US$180 to US$190 dollars.

"Most NGOs, UN offices and guesthouses, foreign businessmen and diplomats prefer to live here in Wazir, so that is one reason for the price rise," said property dealer Tawab Jan.

"The second reason is that in comparison to the rest of Kabul, Wazir Akbar Khan is a safer place and there are better facilities, such as electricity, running water and asphalted roads.

Ministers and high-ranking officials live here so security-wise it is considered safe."

Yet there are allegations that property transactions are being used to launder drug money. Afghanistan's opium trade this year was worth more than 50 percent of an estimated GDP of US$4.4 billion, according to the joint UN-Afghan Opium Survey released late October.

The survey found opium poppies were spreading to new areas, with 1.7 million people in 28 of Afghanistan's 32 provinces now cultivating poppy.

In September dozens of poor families were evicted from their makeshift homes built on defense ministry land in Shir Pur, next to Wazir Akbar Khan, some of whom had lived there for 30 years.

Plots worth between US$70,000 and US$170,000 dollars were given to most of the Afghan cabinet and other influential figures.

UN special rapporteur on housing rights Miloon Kothari accused ministers of a blatant land grab.

Property agent Anayatullah Yadgar said prices were rising "all over Kabul."

"Half of Kabul is destroyed and there is a flow of refugees and few houses, so of course the prices go up," Yadgar said.

Many former refugees returning after years in exile have found their houses and land seized by militia commanders and others.

Around 30 to 40 percent of greater Kabul's population of roughly 3 million are former refugees, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, placing a strain on the city's resources and limited housing stock.

The UNHCR has begun helping up to 1,500 former refugee families rebuild their homes in the Kabul area as winter approaches, a spokeswoman said on Sunday.

The agency has also agreed to rehabilitate ruined public buildings where nearly 800 families are squatting.

The government plans to build satellite settlements outside Kabul to ease the demand. But for the moment prices show no signs of slowing.

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