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

Mausoleum Restoration Row

Traders using neglected ancient site say restoration plan fails to compensate them.
By Danish Karokhel

A confrontation is looming between the government and several hundred small shopkeepers over plans to restore the historic graveyard and park they’ve partly occupied for the past 20 years.


The multi-million dollar Aga Khan Trust for Culture is seeking to rebuild the Timur Shah mausoleum, dedicated to a former Afghan emperor who moved the country’s capital from Kandahar to Kabul in 1817, and return the park, once an oasis of greenery in the heart of the capital, to its former shape and splendour.


Over two decades of war have left the mausoleum badly damaged - with one of its two domes destroyed by a direct hit from a rocket during bitter fighting between rival Islamic guerrilla groups - and the park a treeless waste, used by the public as a latrine.


The redevelopment and restoration of the site, surrounded by some 300 small tailors and cloth-sellers, is one of a number of projects undertaken by the Aga Khan Foundation, headed by Karim Aga Khan, hereditary leader of the worldwide Ismaili community, in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. Other projects in Kabul include the restoration of the 500-year-old Babur Gardens, the first Moghul mausoleum, and the rebuilding of Kabul’s ancient quarter, Asheqan wa Arefan, a maze of narrow streets beneath Kabul’s Bala Hisar citadel.


“We invited engineers from Germany, Norway and India to help restore the graveyard and park to its original shape, but none of them came up with an acceptable plan, so we are relying on our own Afghan experts,” the trust’s programme manager Abdul Hasib Latifi told IWPR.


“We have completed all preparatory work on the project, but our problem now is these shopkeepers. We have removed 60 from the area, but there are 300 more who are refusing to go and who have been given a deadline of March 31 by the city government.”


Aware that the removal of the shops would deprive several hundred families of a livelihood at a time when the Afghan economy is barely operating, the trust, in cooperation with the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organisation, UNESCO, and the city authorities, have come up with a plan to build a modern U-shaped covered market where small businesses can ply their trade.


One of the cloth-sellers, Fazal Mohammad, 35, said their present shops were officially registered with the ministry of religious affairs and pilgrimages, which controls all graveyards and other religious sites, and they had been operating for 20 years on one-year renewable leases, which entitled them to new premises.


“If the Aga Khan Foundation is building a new market, we are ready to meet the expenses. We are prepared to pay between 1,000 and 2,000 US dollars for a space,” he said.


However, the head of historical monuments in the ministry of culture and information, Abdul Ahad, made it clear that the new shops were not intended as a centre for the clothing industry, but as a cultural market. “Shops will be given to those selling handicrafts and antiques. Cloth stores and tailors will not be allowed,” he told IWPR.


Cloth-seller, Mohammad Aslam, 40, said, “ If handicrafts shops are built we can’t afford to buy them, as we have no capital. I buy my cloth on credit and pay back when I have sold it.”


Najibullah, a member of a seven-member shopkeepers’ council, told IWPR, “We will tie ourselves to the bulldozer if they try to destroy our shops, and we won’t give up the fight until they provide us with new premises.


“We have been here for 20 years, and the removal of these shops will leave around a thousand families without support.


“I have a cloth shop and I’m supporting a 10-member family. I am ready to leave this place only if I can find somewhere else where I can earn 200 afghanis (4.75 dollars) a day.”


He added that the council had sent a letter of complaint to Afghan vice-president and defence minister Mohammed Qseem Fahim.


Danish Karokhel is an IWPR reporter/editor in Kabul.