Breath of Fresh Air for Lashkar Gah
Despite security concerns, a new park in Helmand is proving a surprising hit, and a PR success for the provincial government.
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
By Mohammad Elyas Dayee in Lashkar Gah (ARR No. 284, 27-Feb-08)
Children laughing, young people milling around, winding paths leading down to a wide river – can this be Helmand? The war-torn southern province is better known for insurgents and poppy than for broad vistas and recreation areas.
But even in winter, the recently-opened Bolan Park is already attracting many visitors. Spread alongside the Helmand river on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, it provides welcome relief from the tension and congestion of the provincial capital.
Abdullah Jan, who lives in nearby Hazarajuft, was sitting with friends and sharing a picnic of fruit and nuts.
“I hadn’t been to this area for ages,” he said. “But when I heard the park was open, and it was so beautiful, I asked a few of my friends to come here with me. I think that however much money they spent on this park, it was worth it.”
The park was begun in March 2007 by the Helping Afghan Farmers’ Organisation, a local non-government group. Funded by the British, the project cost over 700,000 US dollars.
At the time, many Helmandis were upset by so much money being spent on so frivolous a scheme. The location of the park, on the other side of the river from Lashkar Gah, was also cause for concern. This area, Bolan is one of the province’s richest poppy-growing sites – which is saying a lot in Helmand, the world opium capital.
The area has also seen a growing Taleban presence. Many residents of Lashkar Gah do not dare venture into Bolan.
But now that the park is open for business, people seem to welcome it.
“I couldn’t believe they had made such a nice park,” said Abdullah Jan. “We thought that because our government is so corrupt, they’d just have poured the money into their own pockets. But they have made a very pretty place here.”
The park contains swings, stone animals for children to climb on, and large grassy areas where people can sit and relax. The paths are well lit on a winter’s evening, a rarity given Helmand’s chronic power shortage. As a park gardener explained, the site has been fitted with solar panels which store up energy to generate light.
Attaullah, a mechanic in Lashkar Gah, was looking everywhere for his four children, who had scattered to other parts of the park.
“I didn’t want to bring my family here,” he said. “There are problems with security. What if there’s a bomb? Then our relatives would get worried and search for us. But my children saw the park on national television and they made me take them.”
Despite his harried expression, this family man was quite positive about the park.
“I am very happy that this park was built,” said Attaullah. “I think it might even make people respect the government. Before this, the government never kept any of its promises.”
There are people of all ages in the park, but the majority are men. Many heads of families in this deeply conservative area do not allow their wives and daughters to go out to public places unless absolutely necessary. The unstable security situation also makes it difficult for women to leave their homes.
This is ironic, since the project was billed as a haven for Helmand’s women as it wound its way through the British bureaucracy.
“We knew it would get funding if we called it a ‘women’s park’,” laughed one diplomat.
But women are largely absent.
“I love my wife,” said Abasin, a resident of Nawa distrct, who looked like a religious scholar with his big, bushy beard and booming voice. “But I never take her out. What am I supposed to do? My family is religious and my parents don’t allow me to go places with my wife. We have to respect our elders.”
But the girls of Lashkar Gah are trying their best to get to Bolan Park.
“Yesterday I was driving by the park in my father’s car,” said Shahla Sahar, a sixth-grade student in Lashkar Gah. “I asked my father to take me as it looked so nice, but he said no. He told me it wasn’t safe. I hope that one day we will be able to go. The government should maintain security. This is very necessary.”
Nazia Nanzai is another local girl anxious to visit the park. “My father is religious, but I don’t think he will stop us from going to the park if it is secure,” she said.
Fawzia Olumi, director of Helmand’s Department of Women’s Affairs, applauds the park, but fears that most women will be unable to take advantage of it until things improve.
“I do not think that women can go to the park under current conditions,” she told IWPR. “But if security improves, the park will be a great help to the women of Helmand.”
The new park is, however, proving attractive to the local drug users.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am about this park,” said Abdul Wadud Bawer, a resident of Lashkar Gah, as he lit up a cigarette full of hashish. He and his friends were passing the joint and speaking animatedly among themselves.
“It used to be that there was no place to meet friends. We never saw each other. Now we thank the government for building this park,” he said.
Yet even Wadud said, “I would never allow any members of my family to come here.”
He and his friends attracted the ire of several other park visitors.
“This is a place to relax, not to smoke cigarettes and other drugs,” said Taza Gul, who had come over from Pakistan. “The smoke may disturb other people. It should be forbidden here.”
But apart from the wafting smell of hashish, Taza Gul was full of praise for the park.
“I am really happy here,” he said. “I never thought there could be such a nice park in Helmand.”
Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR staff reporter in Helmand.