For sale: luxury villa with balcony, pool and Taliban death threat
Residents are fleeing exclusive estate dreamed up by president’s brother
* James Palmer in Kandahar
* The Guardian,
* Friday September 12 2008
The neat rows of new homes in the gated community sit behind freshly painted three-metre-high cement walls and rows of manicured shrubs.
Pavements lined with imported eucalyptus trees border smoothly paved streets that fill at twilight with cyclists and walkers. Further back, another cluster of houses is being built, including an eight-bedroom villa with a pool, wraparound deck and balcony supported by doric columns.
Residents at the Aino Mina housing development also have access to a mosque, two private schools, football fields, playgrounds and private armed guards on duty 24 hours a day. A hospital, supermarket, pizza parlour and golf course are also planned.
But, despite luxuries rivalling those found in exclusive suburban communities in the United States, many owners are trying to sell or rent out their homes. Others have temporarily abandoned properties. The reason is as simple as the long-standing estate agent’s maxim: location, location, location.
This upmarket residential neighbourhood is situated on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Kandahar – one of the most volatile and lawless provinces of Afghanistan. Others call the area the heartbeat of the Taliban, the place where the group formed in the early 1990s and where it is, by all accounts, re-establishing itself today.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Sayed Hakim Kallmi, a 40-year-old hotel manager, said as he stood on the pavement outside his dream home in Aino Mina. He was watching his son and three of his six daughters play with neighbours. “There’s no security here.”
According to Mahmoud Karzai, the driving force behind the project and younger brother of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, what is taking place is a clash between people who want a better life and those fighting any attempt at progress.
“This is,” Karzai claimed, “a war against modernisation.”
Aino Mina began with 24 hectares (60 acres) and an initial investment of $50,000 by five businessmen, including three Afghan-Americans, in 2002 shortly after a US-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban. A $3m loan from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a US government agency that encourages investment from the American private sector in developing foreign economies, boosted the project.
Today the project has grown to 800 hectares and $50m of investment. At least 300 homes have been sold. About half of those have been completed and a further 250 are under construction, according to the site manager, Mohammed Gul Pacha Khan.
Karzai said he envisioned thousands of residents in a contemporary city on a par with any of its size worldwide.
“Kandahar was once an economic and intellectual centre in Afghanistan, second only to Kabul, until the Taliban took it over,” said Karzai. “This was a dream come true for me because I was eager to build a modern city for the people with a proper water and electrical system, roads, sidewalks, trees, hospitals and schools.”
A Taliban representative said his group opposed development because Karzai and the other investors were using government influence to enrich themselves.
“This is the land of the people,” Qari Yousef Ahmadi said in a telephone interview. “The brother of Karzai is using it to serve his own interests and the interests of his friends.”
Not so, the younger Karzai said. In fact, he countered, his group was providing affordable housing with modern amenities and building a tax base for the government, while creating approximately 1,000 jobs at a time when a weak economy and high unemployment were hindering development.
“When the Taliban were in power,” he said, “there was nothing but dust and an undeveloped city with no signs of civilisation.”
Taliban operatives have made no secret of their campaign to intimidate residents of Aino Mina. Ahmadi, who described himself as a spokesman for the group, said: “We seriously warn people not to buy here. Those who stay there and who buy there will be held responsible for the actions we take against them later.”
Residents and workers in the development say the Taliban have targeted the area and maintain an unmistakable presence. During a sweltering July afternoon, a thickly bearded man in a shalwar kameez with a turban wrapped around his head rode a motorcycle along the nearly empty streets of Aino Mina with an AK-47 strapped across his back. The motorbike and the AK-47 both are long-favoured hallmarks of the Taliban.
Despite the rider, a handful of construction workers at the project hauled wheelbarrows full of dirt, lugged slabs of concrete and scaled bamboo ladders. Naik Mohammed, 28, pointed to a two-story townhouse and said Taliban militants had recently looted the elegant dwelling and demanded protection money from its occupants.
“They told the owners to pay $200,000 and they would allow them to live there peacefully and they won’t kill them,” Mohammed said. “The family left the next day.”
However, Mohammed, who earns about $4 a day for a 12-hour shift, added that neither he nor any of his co-workers had been threatened.
But Mohammed Sadiq, 38, who bought an eight-bedroom house in the project, said the kidnapping of two Aino Mina residents last month had hurt sales. “Building has slowed,” said Sadiq, who also is a construction manager for the development. “People are afraid to buy because of the Taliban.”
Not all residents are as concerned. Some even say they feel safer on the development than in the city, where roadside bombs targeting Nato and government security forces explode with sickening regularity, crime is rife and religious extremism is prevalent.
Mohabatullan Sayed Gul, 42, an electronic parts shop owner who has lived for five months in a three-bedroom ranch-style house complete with a flourishing garden of tomatoes, aubergines and cauliflowers fortified by a towering cement wall, said he moved there primarily for the private girls’ school available to his three daughters.
“This is a modern place where modern people live and girls are free to go to school,” said Sayed Gul. He had received threatening letters at the doorstep of his previous residence in Kandahar from Taliban militants warning him to refrain from sending his daughters to school. “There are many people in the city who don’t want girls to receive an education.”
Others are packing up.
Kallmi, the hotel manager, spent the day preparing his wife and seven children to leave the house they were renting for $150 a month. The previous owner also had left because he did not feel safe. As Kallmi moved furniture and stacked bundles filled with personal belongings, he said he would leave the next day and go north.
“I was very happy in this environment,” Kallmi said. “I’m sorry I have to leave.”
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008