We arrived at the gated base of Wazir Akbar Khan Hill, paid the admission fee and drove under the lifted steel security bar. We began climbing the nicely paved entrance road carved into the southern slope of the hill and lined with rows and rows of freshly budding fruit trees, a grassy hillside and newly planted bushes. We were dropped off at the bottom of a steep set of cement steps leading to the top of the hill. When we reached the top, we were greeted with a spectacular view of the richest part of Kabul city.
At the time, I didn’t know we were looking at the richest part of the city. I just thought Kabul looked more beautiful from above. Or that, perhaps, the leaves on the trees had filled out significantly during our last five days in Bamyan. In all my trips in and around Kabul, I had never seen as many trees and as much greenery as I noticed looking south from the top of Wazir Akbar Khan Hill. The city looked lush and clean. The buildings looked new and intact. The sky was clear and the mountains proudly guarded the southern edge of the city in the distance.
Waving over 200 feet above us, Afghanistan’s largest national flag was snapping in the windy afternoon sky. The flag rose from a huge flagpole in the center of the hill – an impressive, half-million-dollar gift from India measuring almost 100 feet wide. Another $1 million was given from India to the Afghan government to develop the surrounding Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop. India has been a generous friend to Afghanistan. Through the war years, India’s $2 billion or so of aid to Afghanistan included the brand new Parliament building at a cost of $90 million and over 1,000 scholarships for Afghan students.
As we turned to cross to the northern side of the hilltop, a Communist-era Olympic size swimming pool pierced the landscape. I was very curious about this ugly anomaly. We learned that the Soviet forces built this pool and its multi-tiered concrete diving platforms during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s to practice swimming and diving at high altitudes. They had leveled the apex of the hill but could not get water to flow up such a steep slope and, therefore, were never able to use the huge Olympic pool for swimming. It looked monstrously out of place. I was poised to take some photos of the massive, empty pool through the openings in the chain link fence as Hussain began to tell us how the Taliban used the swimming pool for secret and political executions. I slowly withdrew my camera deciding this was not a scene I wanted to memorialize with a photo.
Intellectuals, political protestors and homosexuals were blindfolded and forced to climb to the highest diving platform, where Taliban extremists recited some verses from the Quran and then pushed the alleged offenders off the edge of the platform. The victims plummeted 50 to 60 feet onto the cement floor of the pool. If they survived the fall, they were deemed innocent and allowed to go free, though it’s unlikely that many survived. We also learned that “undesirables” (probably intellectuals, doctors, women and anyone who openly opposed the Taliban) were herded into the deep end of the empty pool and summarily executed by machine-gun.
In my haste to get away from the swimming pool, I walked quickly to the northern edge of the hill for a change of scenery. Expecting to see a heart-lifting view of the city as I had seen on the southern side, only 250 feet away, I was shocked to discover the stark contrast between the two views. Looking out over Qala-e-Musa, Qala-e-Fathullah and beyond, I instantly recalled the before and after photos of Sumatra Island in Indonesia in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami (look at the two panoramic photos at top). In other respects, this view was a mirror image of the southern view – with a range of majestic mountains on the horizon and a flat valley bed in between. However, from this direction, it seemed like Kabul had been flattened, the trees had vanished, all color had been washed away and the lushly planted foot of the hill had been replaced with a dusty cemetery that extended from east to west as far as I could see. I was stunned and speechless. How could the two sides of this hill differ so drastically?
I felt as though someone had tricked me to believe, for some fleeting moments, that all of Kabul looked like the southern view from the top of what is also known as “Swimming Pool Hill.” But the neighborhoods of Wazir Akbar Khan, Shahr-e-naw, Sherpur and Microrayan are among the wealthier parts of Kabul. They are a common place for foreign workers to live. Palatial mansions (also called “poppy palaces”) and colorful, multi-story homes dot these neighborhoods. Many foreign embassies and other significant institutions are there, including the American Embassy, the Presidential Palace, the ISAF headquarters, the Safi Landmark Hotel, and Kabul City Center Mall. Many of the streets are laid out in a grid pattern and there’s a sense of order and control. Conversely, the view to the north reflected development that seemed haphazard and chaotic. The streets splintered off of one another reminding me of crackled paint.
My buoyant mood from seeing the pleasing southern view and reflecting on India’s inspiring gifts to the Afghan people had deflated. My vision was now more acute and, like a bright, bare lightbulb in a dark room, the scenes were harsh to my eyes. In the distance to the north, beyond the jumbled, mostly colorless, one, two and three-story buildings, I could see large pockets of newly constructed high-rise apartment buildings – like the gated, high-end residential complex of Aria City. Several of these modern complexes seemed to be creeping up the sides of the distant mountains. On the other hand, on the mountainsides to the south, thousands of modest, mud-brick homes are packed densely and precariously into the steep terrain as a backdrop to the affluence in the valley below them.
The contrasts are striking in Kabul – between rich and poor, hope and hopelessness, happiness and despair. I felt like I was drowning in these contrasts on the top of Swimming Pool Hill. Some men had spread out their prayer rugs and were offering afternoon prayers, while other men were sitting in the grass playing cards and gambling. A commander from the Ministry of Defense was sitting in his fancy car getting drunk until he recognized us as foreigners. He leapt out of his car, hugged and kissed us jubilantly and then offered a set of prayer beads to my son as a gift. Standing beneath a half million-dollar flag in a million-dollar park with a 360-degree view of the city, I wondered what the priorities were for a country that needed so much. As an outsider, it was clear to see that we were in a land of contradictions. And that helped me to recognize the many contradictions in my own land.