It is dawn in Jangalak, and the former industrial park has the appearance of an apocalyptic fairground. The drug addicts melt away at first light, leaving their syringes littering the ground. Schoolchildren walk down dusty paths among shelled, machinegun-strafed buildings. Women in blue burqas or drab headscarves carry pails of water back to families squatting in shacks built out of rubble and tarpaulins.
“This used to be the jewel in Afghanistan’s modernization scheme,” said resident Fazil Rahman, gesturing at the vista of crumbling warehouses and wrecked walls. “Six thousand active workers produced furniture and assembled cars here.”
Rahman, a 70-year-old mathematics teacher at a nearby school, is one of the few old-timers left. He lives with his family in one of the hardscrabble brick huts clinging off the steep hill overlooking Jangalak. When Rahman and others first moved there two decades ago, the area around Jangalak was a prosperous, upwardly mobile neighborhood of western-educated technocrats and civil servants.
“Then the wars began in 1992 and the bullets and rockets started whizzing around,” Rahman remembers. “We escaped from the random rocketing to Pakistan and stayed there for a decade.”
Jangalak’s location could not have been worse. A no-man’s land in a turf war between two of the strongest Afghan factions – one led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the other by Ahmad Shah Massoud – the neighborhood was subjected to a near-constant pounding from fighters situated in the surrounding hills.
“Our house was looted and we escaped running,” Rahman said. “The only time we came back, there were only armed men around.”
It was all a far cry from the glory days of the 1980s when Jangalak manufactured everything from bricks and electric transformers to porcelain, car bodies and helicopter parts. Set up in 1961, during the reign of King Zahir Shah, it quickly became the center of Afghanistan’s emerging proletariat and took center stage during strikes and labor protests in the 1970s. Later, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Communist government financed the expansion of Jangalak. At its peak, it boasted over 100 buildings.
The Soviet defeat at the hands of the Mujaheddin in 1989 ultimately led to the collapse of the Moscow-backed Afghan government by 1992 and a descent into factional infighting. West Kabul, where Jangalak is situated, was the hardest-hit by the fighting. Mujaheddin groups occupied the area and camped out on its grounds, looting whatever they could get their hands on. At least 150 giant crane systems were dismantled by Hekmatyar’s soldiers and sold in Pakistan to fund the purchase of more weapons. The pillage continued as copper wire and metal manholes were stripped and sold for scrap. Then, when the Taliban took over, the radical Islamic militants joined in the looting, dismantling about 70 enormous water and fuel tanks and selling them in Pakistan.
“When we returned at the beginning of the Karzai administration, we encountered a moonscape,” Rahman said, referring to Hamid Karzai, the man who has led the Afghan government since late 2001.
Slowly, the eerie industrial park filled up with ghosts of the past. Many returning refugees, unable to afford the capital’s high cost of living, carved out an existence in Jangalak. More came from the countryside, where Taliban militants are increasingly active.
Ataollah Soltani was one of the victims. An unprepossessing man, whose mud-caked hands flit over his moustache and a mop of henna-streaked hair, he and his wife and 10 children have been living in Jangalak for the past six months.
“We’ve had no help from the government at all,” Soltani said, surveying the rubble around him over which his children scrambled. “Just the Red Cross visits occasionally to distribute essential goods.”
After fleeing his home province of Nangarhar two years ago, Soltani’s work as a driver meant that originally he could afford to rent one of the humble houses hanging off the rocky cliff rising behind Jangalak. But as work dried up, he was unable to retain the house. Every day he looked down onto the old factory’s ruins and contemplated the homeless men and tottering addicts wandering around.
As rents rose, Soltani made the tough decision to take his family down into Jangalak. They moved into a roofless brick structure adjoining an empty warehouse that was surrounded by mud. Soltani erected a brick wall against inquisitive eyes, threw a makeshift tarpaulin to keep out the wind and rain, and asked his children not to tell anyone at school about the family’s change of fortune. Soon another family moved next door.
But Jangalak’s residents are not all down and out. In a corner of the complex, a local power broker known as Ostad Nassir has refashioned a partially bombed-out building into a series of gymnasiums and wrestling arenas. In a nod to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance who was assassinated in 2001 and had a hand in destroying Jangalak, he named it Mojtameye Massoud-e Bozorg (Great Massoud Complex).
Twice a day, in the quiet prelude before dawn and again just after dusk, hundreds of dirt-streaked local young men funnel silently in to practice their fighting moves. The area around Jangalak is without electricity, so the athletes practice in the shadows and yellow light cast by gas-lamps. For those who have used family and tribal connections to wangle positions as soldiers and bodyguards in President Hamid Karzai’s NATO-backed security state, the gyms are more than just an escape from the drab reality of living in Jangalak – they offer an education in violence and, therefore, a future.
“This is Afghanistan in miniature,” said Muhibollah, a passer-by, of the refugees, drug addicts, athletes, and students milling around Jangalak. “It is its past and it is also its future.”
Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist.