Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Housing Project Outcry

The authorities in Kabul have provoked a storm over plans to build new homes for returning refugees.
By Wahidullah Amani

Kabul municipality’s attempts to provide housing for thousands of newcomers have led to protests by squatters and landowners.

The city has taken private land to build apartment blocks in some areas of the city, while destroying houses built illegally on government land in others.

The owners of the former say they weren’t informed and don’t think officials are giving them a fair deal; while the occupants of the latter say their homes shouldn’t be taken until they have been found replacements.

Kabul’s housing shortage, created by the influx of more than a million refugees and thousands of foreign aid organisations since the fall of the Taleban, has thwarted the city’s efforts to impose a municipal development plan.

The pressure has driven up property and rental prices, leaving thousands of Kabulis homeless, camped in abandoned buildings or cramped into the houses of relatives and friends.

More than 70,000 homes were destroyed in the civil war in Kabul alone, according to the municipality. Destruction from the war against the Soviet Union is still evident throughout the countryside.

Villagers who were driven into exile by the fighting are not returning to their former homes, preferring to live in the capital where there are jobs.

Trying to address the problem as rapidly as possible, the city has taken land and begun to build 6,000 apartments in four undeveloped areas. Although the project is part of the city’s master development plan, and the land was legally taken under eminent domain, the landowners object strenuously.

The city government had trouble locating the owners to give them sufficient notice, mostly because they lived outside the country, officials said. The best they could do for some was to announce the project on radio and television, said Engineer Sayed Alam Ahmadi, head of the municipality’s construction department.

Anar Gul, a landowner in Khoshal Mina district in western Kabul, where a government building scheme is underway, said he got permission to build on his land, then, two days later, the municipality announced plans to develop the area.

Mohammad Hussain, who also owns land in Khoshal Mina, said officials also failed to inform him of their project. “We are now in contact with the municipality, but they waste our time and keep sending us to different departments,” he said.

Gul Agha Hedayati, deputy chief of the city’s housing construction department, said the landowners will be compensated with cash, a new apartment or comparable government land elsewhere.

But the landowners don’t believe this is a fair trade. Hussain, speaking for a group of 40 landowners, told IWPR, “We do not want money or a house as a substitute for our land.”

Sofi Sher, who owns three plots of land taken by the city, said, “If I built a small market or some other business on my land, I’ll get more profit than the value of the apartment that the city will give me.”

The municipality plan calls for construction of blocks of apartment buildings four to six storeys high, with parks, markets, parking lots and green space for each grouping. Each building will include one-, two- and three-bedroom flats.

The apartments will have modern ventilation and plumbing. The work has been contracted to several domestic and foreign companies.

The flats won’t be within the salary range of many ordinary Kabulis, however. A one-bedroom apartment will cost 13,550 US dollars, a two-bedroom apartment 17,400 dollars and a three-bedroom 23,500 dollars. Buyers will have to make a 30 per cent down payment and 400 dollars a month for several months even before they move in - typical salaries, though, are only 30 to 40 dollars a month.

But the municipality figures there are plenty of Afghans who have enough savings to afford the mortgage - or can get loans from relatives living abroad. And the city, which will have to build housing for all different needs and income levels, can’t fulfill all the demands at once, Ahmedi said.

Abdul Ghafoor Ahsas, a military administrator who has lived in Kabul for 20 years, is supporting five children on a salary of 40 dollars a month, just over half of which goes on rent. “I cannot provide for my family as it is - how can I pay 400 dollars per month?

“If I saved my entire salary for years I would not be able to afford such a house. The only people who can get [them] are the ones who work in NGOs or have relatives living in foreign countries.”

Meanwhile, others who couldn’t wait for the city to build homes have built on unused government land – and they’re fighting the city’s attempts to destroy their homes.

The squatters threw stones and bricks at city workers who came recently to bulldoze the houses they’d built on a hillside. When six workers were injured and windows broken, officials retreated. It’s unclear whether they will return.

One of the residents, Abdul Jan, a defense ministry soldier, said he had to build illegally because he could not afford the 200,000 afghanis (about 4,000 dollars) the city was charging for a plot of land he wanted to buy.

Another resident, 70-year-old Gawhar Bigum, told IWPR tearfully, “I have built just one room here on the hillside with the help of my daughter-in-law and grandchildren. If the city destroys this room, we will die.”

One of the squatters even works for the municipal government as a guard, but his salary of 1,500 afghanis a month hasn’t been paid for three months, said his wife, Aliyah. The family of ten had to borrow 100,000 afghanis to build a simple house, she said.

Nonetheless, the squatter houses were built illegally – some by local military commanders – and don’t conform to the city development plan, Ahmedi told IWPR. “Unfortunately, due to the system of warlords in Kabul, powerful people build houses wherever they want, and the municipality cannot prevent them,” he said, insisting that the city will distribute plots of land to the squatters before bulldozing their homes.

One private landowner, Molavi Siddiqullah, has stepped forward to donate his land on the outskirts of Kabul to build a new city of 1,000 houses for refugees from Peshawar. He has paid the initial construction costs for a water supply system, and is asking charity organisations to come forward and build the houses and roads.

Siddiqullah has formed a committee to review applications from refugees for the property. The committee will give priority to families of the soldiers who fought the Soviets in 1979-89.

One of the applicants, 40-year-old Nasratullah, returned to Kabul with his 12-member family eight months ago. He hasn’t found an affordable house yet, so they are living in one of the ruined areas of Kabul. “I am tired of not having a home,” he told IWPR. “If I can’t build a house on this land, I would rather live in a tent.”

Ahmad Zubair Mumand and Wahidullah Amani are independent journalists in Kabul. Danish Karokhel is an IWPR editor/reporter.

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