'Titanic' Sinks Beneath Waves of Humanity

One of the biggest attractions in Kabul is named after a disaster movie, and officials warn it is becoming a catastrophe in its own right.

'Titanic' Sinks Beneath Waves of Humanity

One of the biggest attractions in Kabul is named after a disaster movie, and officials warn it is becoming a catastrophe in its own right.

On the banks of the River Kabul, which bisects the city that takes its name, sits a huge street market with a borrowed name of its own. The locals call it Titanic, in homage to the blockbuster disaster movie that invaded the world's collective consciousness two years ago - even in then-Taleban ruled Afghanistan.

Kabul's own Titanic, appropriately enough, is also a disaster. It is a magnet for homeless, destitute people, a centre of disease and, increasingly, of petty crime and exploitation of child labour.

It runs beside the crumbling sandbagged banks of the River Kabul, whose foul waters daily receive kilos of human waste, decomposing meat and other trash from Titanic's denizens.

Titanic proper refers to a drapers' street market, which grew up along the riverbank several years ago. The term has since expanded to encompass several smaller street trading areas, from the Pul-e-Hartal bridge down river, where women have set up laundries to wash clothes in the Kabul's waters, to beyond the Taimorshahi suspension bridge, where carpet shops and plant nurseries edge the river. On the right bank sit the drapers, selling bolts of cloth from wheelbarrows. On the left is a section of stalls catering to women.

For months the country's drought kept the banks dry until a sudden flash flood in the early hours of April 16. It swept away many traders who had been moved off the main promenade by the traffic police but who then simply set up stalls on the dried riverbed itself.

The rain took the traders by surprise. "There hasn't been a flood here for more than three years," said carpet seller Mohammad Qasseem, who was moved by police off his old patch beside the Zarnigar Park. "We didn't expect rain even though it is spring. So we took a chance and sold carpets here (on the riverbank)."

The traffic police also moved cloth seller Gulab Shah off his former patch outside the nearby Ayesha-e-Durrani high school just two weeks before the flood. He also lost much of his stock as well as his new spot to the river's tide.

The police wrangle with the traders daily, but Kabul's police chief, Mohammed Shafiq, says a tough approach is essential, especially with traders using wheelbarrows.

"There isn't enough space on the roads for wheelbarrows," he said. "We have the authority to get them off the streets and out of the crowded quarters of the city. But we need to send them somewhere, so we have asked the city council to identify areas where they can set up stalls."

Kabul's deputy mayor, Gulam Mohayudin Bahai, says they have selected three new sites for markets by the old Bemazang oil refinery and in the Houza-e-Amniyati Doum and Bagh-e-Alimardan quarters. But all lie outside the city centre and are unpopular with the itinerant traders. Many simply head back to Titanic, the river and its fetid banks.

However, efforts are underway to clean up the worst of the pollution and repair the damage to the sandbagged riverside that the city council cannot afford to put right. The UN Development Programme, UNDP, and the Japanese Recovery & Employment Afghanistan Programme, REAP, are supporting and coordinating the municipality teams.

A local involved in the operation, Pahlawan Nasir, says the work is foul and difficult, even dangerous. Among the detritus the teams found two bodies. "On April 1 we were cleaning the river banks around the Pul-e-Hartal bridge when we found a dead body of a man, just the bones," he said.

"Three days later we found the corpse of a child on the riverbanks just opposite the Ibu Sina hospital. We buried its bones in a fine place." The man was a murder victim. His body had been weighted down with chains and thrown into the river.

Naseer Ahmed, an engineer from the city council's river infrastructure office, is leading the river clearance work. "We have been working on the project for three months with the help of the international agencies and have cleared much of the waste from the Pul-e-Hartal bridge down to the Taimorshahi suspension bridge," he said.

His teams have pulled more than 2,000 cubic metres of waste from the river and disposed of it in dumps outside the city. The next stage will take in the stretch along the market itself.

In the mean time the people who work in or by the river remain prone to disease. Dr Ghulam Sarwar Abasi, director of environmental health and control of contagious diseases at the ministry of public health, particularly deplores the locals' habit of washing vegetables in the river.

"Washing food in the river is a big problem, but we don't have an alternative source of water to offer them," he said. "People are catching various waterborne diseases after eating vegetables and fruit from the market. We want the city council and the international agencies to help set up a place where food can be washed safely."

Mir Enyatullah Sadat is a journalist with Kabul Weekly.

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