January 25th, 2010
12:39 PM ET

Shattered palace mirrors efforts to rebuild Kabul

Kabul, Afghanistan - It's name means "Abode of Peace," but the Darul-Aman Palace outside Kabul symbolizes the years of war and strife that have ravaged this city.

A massive monument built in the 1920's by King Amunullah Khan, who tried and failed to reform Afghanistan, it was left empty for years, before being successively destroyed by fire, turned into a museum, used as a defence ministry and shelled by the Mujahideen after the Soviets left.

Now it is a spectacular vacant behemoth, which emerges from the dust and smog as you drive out of the capital. Commuters cycle past in the morning mist, without giving the place a second glance. I was transfixed, though, and saddened that such a magnificent building could be left to rot.

Inside, there are dozens of massive rooms with soaring ceilings and crumbling plaster, redolent of a lost Roman palace, quietly decaying into obscurity. The floor is carpeted in fallen masonry, its long corridors silent, save for the muttering of the handful of Afghan soldiers who patrol this vacant hulk. A fox darts across the rubble, a pair of pigeons whirl above its skeletal ceiling – the only movement breaking the crushing silence and melancholy of this extraordinary place.

For me, it has a wonderful dreamy feel – like something out of a film set. It's just one of the many surreal places we have visited while filming a report about the lack of development progress in Kabul. Everywhere there are reminders of the years of war: bullet-riddled buildings from the civil war of the 1990s, a smashed Soviet Cultural centre, inhabited by dazed heroin addicts, a bus graveyard with a thousand shot-up vehicles, rusting and forlorn.

Watch the slideshow of how the once-grand palace mirrors the challenge to revitalize Kabul

Despite almost a decade of U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan, there is precious little sign of the billions of dollars of aid that has supposedly been spent here. Kabul is a city that's grown rapidly in the last 30 years – from 400,000 to perhaps 5 million.

The mayor was recently convicted of corruption and sentenced to four years in prison. The new mayor insists he will be different, telling me about his grandiose plans for parks and gardens throughout the city.

But the truth is most houses don't even have main sewage system, let alone electricity or telephone lines. Garbage festers in every gutter, where dusty children play with junk they've salvaged from the mounds of litter. The mayor's office didn't even have a computer or Internet until a fortnight ago. Seventy per cent of the city was built without plans or permission.

But despite all the horrendous poverty and degradation, there is something intangibly delightful about this place; the soaring snow-capped mountains that frame every view, the variety of faces, from fierce Pashtun men, to piercing blue-eyed children, the azure Burka clad women who walk swiftly away from our camera. After the international community has been here so long, they all deserve better.

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. ВИДЕОШОК

    Пасибо за материалы! 🙂
    Respect afghanistan.blogs.cnn.com

    December 5, 2010 at 10:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Mike

    Its Amanullah not Amunullah

    March 3, 2010 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Roland Lamontagne

    This is a great place to put into practice all of the theories of Urban Renewal. In reality however, we cannot rebuild Kabul any more than we can reconstruct the rest of the country.

    March 3, 2010 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  4. Chip H

    Now, now, just think long term, it"s not being 'left to rot', it's being weathered by time, like the Acropolis, so in eons hence, long after Western Civilization has fallen into the Holy See, observers from Mars can murmur amonst themselves, 'Why would they build a great civilization, here in this cratered moonscape, where all the natural resources were stolen and left as toxic open pits, and the population choked with toxic sulfur fumes and the waters still bright red with acid mine waste? What was the point of building a fancy commemorative palace?

    Of course, the Martians couldn't possible know the palace was built when Afghanistan was still called the Fabled Gardens of Central Asia, the Land of the Happy Hunzas, where people live to a 100 years in peace, freedom and tranquility.

    They just need to grant their Martian education system more taxes than their space tourism.

    February 2, 2010 at 3:08 am | Report abuse |
  5. Sandra

    Thank you for caring. You're so right: after being the carpet for so many nonAfghans to walk all over, they do deserve much better. People have taken. It's time to give now.

    January 31, 2010 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. eddie jalalli

    If there is no war, there is no money, If you do not believe me ask the United States and the British.

    January 28, 2010 at 12:43 am | Report abuse |
  7. Joseph

    Despite all these setbacks, Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan remains a place full of hope. Perhaps, development funds manager need to focus on prioritizing developing piece by piece of the city, much like working on a jigsaw puzzle. Slowly but surely, all efforts will realize the bigger picture–a much better Afghanistan worth of all Afghans.

    January 27, 2010 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Faith

    Its the sad, poignant, tragic legacy of a war torn country..which symbolises all that is wrong about war.

    January 27, 2010 at 5:02 am | Report abuse |
  9. Rameen Hadi

    Who can belife that in the past 90 years ago we had such a good palace but now it is just dust and debris nothing els. from this palace we can say that we will never go forward instead we are going backward day by day to stoneage again.Rain of dollars in Afghanistan come but no one wana make their heritage.

    January 27, 2010 at 2:55 am | Report abuse |
  10. adifarid_asmaon

    this is the moment in life when situations such as in this part of the region which requires the US army and its allies to decide that the talibans has brought more damage to its own people and therefore the armed forces must bring down these insurgents once for all and this must be achieved bearing in mind that all the efforts to create a more prudent democratic nation by this fall and not just lambasting against the armed forces over there caused we must recognise these measures taken by the army in all the provincies in this region.

    January 26, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  11. tony russo

    I see this beautiful palace now, it just break my heart that what they have done to this counry and its people. First I blame the British and Russians then the United State and the afghani people themselfes, One day I was taking to a old afghan guy who told me that, back in the late 1800's the british lost twice to invade afghanistan in way they were called losers and they never forgot that , so they came back almost less than 100 year later and did this to get even, by provoking the russian to invade which they did, then united state and the world help the freedom fighters to fight the russian, after the russians got defeated and left then the british and russian both turned the four tribal groups to turn on each other, in the way they turned brothers against brothers and then the united state added to their distructions. all these four countries the british, united state, russians, and the pakistan they want afghanistan to be like that forever. unless the almighty god to help.

    January 25, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Nichola

    It would have been nice to see what the palace looked like in Afghanistan's hey day...

    January 25, 2010 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. A. Smith, Oregon

    If America truely cared about the mass destruction upon the Afghanistan people on their specific part, they would map out ever single land mine of the hundreds of thousands they have placed across Afghanistan, along with the type's of land mines.

    There is approximately 1 million land mines scattered across Afghanistan as a result of the past 40 years of wars in Afghanistan. It should be a war crime against any military commander that allows those under his/her command to plant ANY landmines without documenting the shape and extent of the landmine fields and type of mines so they can be found and disposed of after that military presence leaves.

    The landmines across Afghanistan will kill many Afghanistan civilians for decades to come.

    January 25, 2010 at 7:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Anna

    I must agree with the comments here that rebuilding the palace would be a disgusting use of my tax dollars. While it makes for a beautiful and intriguing photo essay, the text seems a bit facile – why should the palace have been rebuilt? Does it have meaning to the Afghans? It doesn't seem, from the brief history he recites, that it does. I suspect it is far more important to rebuild the wonderful university that once graced Kabul, and build decent student dormitories, build hospitals for the country tied with Sierra Leone for the worst maternal mortality statistics in the world. Unless the palace was rebuilt as a hospital for women or children injured by mines or wounded Afghan soldiers, what's the point of spending a dollar on it? The reporter didn't seem to try very hard to find anything that had been built with our money, and I know there are many such things. Kid photos are heart-wrenching, but his story was supposedly about corrupt rebuilding, not about kids. Photos and text didn't match up. Honestly, no wonder I'm tiring of cnn.com after a decade of loyalty. I remember the good days when I used it for all my Balkans war coverage – while deployed there. Current soldiers in Afghanistan surely can't do the same.

    January 25, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  15. D. Graf

    I lived in Afghanistan during the 1960s and it was a much better place than it seems to be now. Religious fanaticism and tribal conflicts have done so much damage.
    I loved the land and the people who were very friendly. I'd go back to the old Afghanistan in a heartbeat!

    January 25, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Beasterdamas

    I stood inside the Palace after "Anacando" in the spring of 2002....There were a lot of unexploded shells lying around the building....Sad...

    January 25, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
  17. felix

    The last time this country was equipped to build anything grandiose was nearly a century ago?

    Why is their only cash crop regularly decimated by peace-keeping organizations?

    January 25, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Jerry D. Hatley

    As a contractor I worked in Kabul for three years, primarily working with the MOI and MOD. In my opinion, this is a very good brief assestment of the situation. I like the fact that you saw a bright side of Kabul and I agree. Majority of the people I met are friendly and have a positive outlook on the future even though right now it seems gloomy.

    January 25, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  19. Ash

    There is little hope no for places like Afghanistan. Till several decades ago. Afghanistan was an exporter of fruits and such, Kabul University used to attract Asian professors etc.

    The Soviet Occupation and more prominently US supported Mujahadeen war of the Soviets changed that forever. It is better US exits this place clean making sure what happens in Af-Pak stays there. We have spent 920 Billion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as we are bleeding in US. No use, all this money only lines the pockets of biggies there and Western contractors. Why no one seems to understand the financials of our wars in Islamic countries amazes me – we spend $300 in armaments for every $2 of damage caused by them. This is no war to run a war. Osama spent $500,000 financing an operation hat cost the West $2.5 Trillion – that is ROI for you!

    Never capture a Islamic terrorist, not worth it. I am yet to meet an Afghan or a Pakistani who seems to have clear loyalties that identify with the West – it always seems to be for the moment. And Obama seems to have no clue on wars. He brings a terrorist to New York for trial!? And I supported Obama in his election? My simple advise to the West, take care of your money, you need it! When US spent a trillion in these wars, Chian bagged a $7 Billion mining contract in Afghanistan bribing an official $20 Million. Now that is ROI! China and the Islamic nations are laughing at our stupidity here!

    January 25, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
  20. DJ

    I'm sure glad that aid money hasn't gone to rebuilding palaces like these. What good would that be? Granted, Kabul hasn't had as much development as it could have had or should have had, but there is progress: some neighborhoods now have city water, trash collection trucks do exist and some are working, electricity supply and distribution has improved radically, roads have been built. These signs are good, and should also be reported on.

    January 25, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Whitney Love

    I feel sorry for the people in afghanistan. god bless them

    January 25, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  22. alicia smith

    i thin this would be a good place to go

    January 25, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  23. amber cain

    whoa, 🙂

    January 25, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Alicia Holly

    I feel bad for all the destruction that has taken place there. I do not mind helping to rebuild as long as the same mistakes from the past are not repeated.

    January 25, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |