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 lastĀ 30 years – from 400,000 to perhapsĀ 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.

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