The Survival Guide to Kabul©

Published internationally in July 2003 as Kabul: The Bradt Mini Guide.

First published in Kabul in September 2002 as a pamphlet.



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Ahmed Rashid’s Kabul – Exclusive by best-selling author Ahmed Rashid.

Fatima’s Story – By Jude Barrand, Caritas Internationalis.


April 2004 Kabul Scene Magazine - Published articles.



Ahmed Rashid’s Kabul

Ahmed Rashid is author of the bestsellers Taliban and Jihad and correspondent for The Daily Telegraph and The Far Eastern Economic Review.

More on Ahmed Rashid.



Since the 1960s no city has witnessed as many dramatic changes and as much destruction as Kabul. For former King Zahir Shah who returned to his capital earlier this year after nearly 30 years in exile, the changes were extremely emotional and apparent. The last time Zahir Shah saw Kabul it was an international diplomatic backwater, but a thriving, bustling town where the elite had a hectic social life. 


The Cold War was at its height and both the Soviet Union and the US were mildly courting the Afghan monarch with economic aid. The Americans built airports and roads in the south of the country, while the Soviets did the same in the north. Often their contractors would meet up such as when the Kabul-Kandahar highway was built.


Only after the coup that toppled Zahir Shah in 1973, did the coup maker - his cousin Mohammed Doud - turn wholeheartedly to the Soviets for military training for his army and the disgruntled Americans abandoned Afghanistan. By then Kabul was the centre of late hippiedom as Westerners travelled to India and stopped off at Kabul for cheap hashish and the ability to live on next to nothing.


Wine and cognac were cheap, courtesy of adventurous Italians who set up a wine factory in Kabul based on the grapes grown in the Shomali plain. The wine was exported to Pakistan, Iran and the Soviet Union. There was a vibrant teahouse culture where men and women students from Kabul University would discuss politics and the latest fashions. The most popular place was the Café in Pushtunistan Square opposite the central Post Office where the dating game was played furiously after 4 pm and it was all a matter of seeing and being seen.


Kabul’s elite would then move to the Kabul Hotel and newly constructed Intercontinental Hotel where foreign bands offered live dance music. Pasta and saukaraut and sausages were available in German and Italian restaurants, which were run by hippies who had decided to stay on. Tourists from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran would flock to Kabul for weekends in order to shop for duty free foreign goods, see Indian movies, drink and dance. 


The communist revolution in 1978 changed the city as the two warring factions of Khalq and Parcham battled each other in the capital and the first wave of exiles – mostly royalists - escaped to Pakistan and later the West. A year later the Soviet invasion bought in tens of thousands of young Soviet troops who initially acted in the same manner as their Western counterparts – smoking cheap dope, shopping for carpets and Western electronic goods in Chicken Street and hanging out in cafes. 


Then the war started in earnest as the Mujheddin launched guerrilla attacks from Pakistan. The Soviet troops were restricted to their barracks. Girl students took part in anti-Soviet demonstrations in the city and were brutally suppressed. At the same time tens of thousands of Kabulis took part in a massive literacy campaign launched by the Soviets and many students were shipped off to the Soviet Union to further their education and to be indoctrinated in communism.  


However for many women the war was in a sense a liberating experience. As Kabul’s male population were forced into the Afghan army, women took over many jobs. Eventually some 40% of jobs in government ministries, schools and hospitals were taken up by women – many of them from poorer classes who were for the first time going to work dressed in skirts and high heels. 


Although living conditions were hard there was no major fighting around the city until the Mujheddin captured Kabul in 1992. That led to the start of the brutal civil war which lasted a decade and destroyed large parts of central Kabul as well as creating wave upon wave of refugees leaving the city until there were hardly any educated or technically qualified people left. The fighting around Kabul only came to an end when the Taliban captured the city in 1996, bringing with them relative security, but also harsh Islamic measures that destroyed the vitality of the city’s population.  


Kabul quickly became a ghost town; women became invisible and social life outside the home next to impossible. Cinema halls were shut down, the radio played only religious speeches and cafes were shut down. The only place where social interaction took place was the mosque.  


The revival of Kabul’s social life after November 2001 has been dramatic in the extreme. Within days of the retreat of the Taliban and even though the majority of people were desperately poor, the bazaars were once again thronged with people, women appeared in the streets for the first time and music blared in every bazaar. As education and clinics and hospitals revived with the help of international aid agencies, women were back at work in large numbers.  


The future of the city now depends on funds being made available for genuine reconstruction work – providing water, sewerage, electricity and a telephone system and rebuilding the battered roads of the city. Kabulis expectations from the international community are enormous and fulfilling them will not be easy and will take time.


Ahmed Rashid has established the Open Media Fund for Afghanistan to support the print press.

Donate by contacting JoAnne Sullivan of Internews in Washington.

Telephone 1-202-833-5740. Fax 1-202-833-5745.   




Jude Barrand, Caritas Internationalis

One of the NGOs struggling to put an end to the vicious trend of landmine victims is Caritas local partner OMAR (Organisation for Mine clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation).



It takes two men 5 1/2 hours to clear 3m2 of a minefield. There are more than 10 million mines in Afghanistan spread over 824 km2. More than 100 deaths and injuries are caused every month by the hidden killers.


19-year-old Fatima Abrahim is one of those victims. She lost her right arm and left leg after treading on a mine as she played with other children in a field behind her house when she was 10. Her brothers and sisters ran screaming back to the house, her friends ran away. Only Fatima's mother ventured into the minefield to rescue her daughter.


Fatima was taken to the small local clinic where her severed limbs were dressed with temporary bandages. The next day, Fatima set out on what she says was the most excruciating journey of her life. Her village was a 3-hour drive from Herat City and the nearest hospital facilities.


Fatima's older brother had died from a landmine explosion while she was still an infant. Now Fatima thought she too would die. Despite her terrible injuries Fatima survived. But her recovery was to be a painful ordeal spanning more than fours years.


On arrival at the hospital doctors amputated her left leg at the knee. Three days later after the first signs of gangrene began to show they took off four fingers from her right hand. However, her whole hand became infected and a few days later the surgeons operated again. This time amputating her hand at the wrist.


The poor health care in Herat hospital lead to Fatima getting tetanus and the infection again spread up her arm. Six weeks after her first operation, Fatima's arm was amputated just below the shoulder.


The operations were costly and Fatima's parents were forced to sell their land and home to pay for her healthcare.  Three months later she was finally able to return to her village where she started learning to walk again. But for Fatima, it was clear something was wrong with her amputated leg. As time passed it became more and more painful. After four years she was taken back to hospital where the doctors told her they would have to operate again. The bone was still growing. This time they amputated at the mid-thigh level.


Amazingly Fatima fought back from her injuries and aged 15 she married. At 16 she became pregnant.


"It was very difficult for me to carry a child with only one leg. I spent most of my pregnancy sitting down," she says. I gave birth to a daughter, but after five months she died of dysentery." Shortly afterwards Fatima's husband repudiated her, blaming the child’s death on her disability, and they divorced.


Fatima says most of the time she feels very isolated; she lives alone with her elderly parents whom she supports by working as a secretary for one of the international NGOs. They have no other source of income. Fatima cooks and cleans and does the shopping for the household although, "People stare at me when I go shopping, and sometimes make rude comments." 


Fatima has lived almost half her life as a landmine victim; she says she has accepted her fate, but every now and then the anger still surfaces.


Visit the OMAR Museum in Wazir Akbar Khan for more details on mines and de-mining.



كابل، افغانستان

The Survival Guide to Kabul©