KABUL - They came from every corner, children holding their parents’ hands, their eyes wide open with amazement. A hope, a symbol, a revolution around the corner: when the first streetlights began to light up, it was not only the end of decades of complete darkness in the Afghan capital, it was also a promise of new life.
But Kabul's street lighting is just one issue among thousand that Mayor Muhammad Yunus Nawandish must face, day and night. If a list of the world's most complicated jobs was compiled, "Mayor of Kabul" would be near the top. But Muhammad Yunus Nawandish insists it's also one of the most rewarding: “For the past 30 years, the people of this country lived under constant pressure. And all of a sudden, cheerfulness and joy can be part of their lives again. It’s a completely different psychological state.”
But dealing with street lighting can seem pointless in a city constantly at war, like Kabul. “The situation is different from what is described in the media,” the mayor said in a recent interview. “Security is getting better and the international community is starting to understand that Kabul is a city like every other city in the world, with normal people living in it. There has been constant progress.”
Muhammad Nawandish wasn’t supposed to become Kabul’s mayor. With a 30-year career as an engineer, specialized in Afghanistan's oil, gas and electricity fields, he was not part of the country's political scene. When Afghan President Hamid Karzai offered him the Kabul mayor's job, he refused at first, but then reconsidered. “Someone had to do it. I owe my country this involvement.”
Usually, the mayor is elected, but in a city lacking just about everything, there wasn’t money to organize an election. Thus Nawandish was appointed to the job in early 2010, after the former mayor, Mir Abdul Ahad Sahebi, was accused of corruption. He is currently in jail.
Nawandish’s days begin at 5 a.m. and end 15 hours later. When night falls, he inspects construction sites by himself, to check work is being done as expected. This ritual has made him very popular: when he walks the streets, people shout “Long live the mayor!”, he boasts with a smile.
A bulging city
Reconstructing the city is a huge task in itself. In the two years since Nawandish took over the mayor's job, his list of completed projects includes six bridges, the paving of hundreds of kilometers of roadway, 22 new parks and a million trees planted. But Kabul has also increasingly become a magnet for the whole nation's population. In 1979, 1.2 million people were living in the capital. Today, they are more than five million. Under pressure from this economic migration, houses spring up in a ramshackle way, without plans, water connections, or nearby schools and parks.
“It’s very difficult to turn this informal city into an organized one. And very expensive too,” the mayor explains. Then, there are also the local crime outfits that profit from the city's chaos, and frowns upon the mayor’s activities. “At the beginning, the mafia wanted to buy me. As soon as they realized it was impossible, they began to use this money to try to destroy me.”
As an engineer, Nawandish has the unique background to question the materials used or why it’s better to use LED street lighting than traditional incandescent light bulbs. “It seems like nothing, but because of the frequent brown-out periods, traditional light bulbs used to explode all the time.”
Now work days can be longer, and people can invest more in their own homes and property. "They also care more about their neighbors because they want to keep their property intact.” A virtuous circle that makes this engineer a happy mayor indeed.
Read the original article in French
Photo - isafmedia