Page last updated at 17:00 GMT, Thursday, 12 November 2009

The place to take the Afghan pulse

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By Lyse Doucet
Sar-e Chowk, Kabul

Once upon a time in Kabul, there was only one roundabout. And what a place it was - a heaving tide of humanity converged on this central axis in the city, an unrivalled space for commerce and conversation.

All roads led to the roundabout and so did the news.

Constable Jamil
Constable Jamil has the difficult task of keeping the traffic flowing

During the 16th Century reign of the Mogul Emperor Babur it was known as the "navel of Kabul".

Afghans met at this point, from across Kabul and across the country.

In the late 19th Century, writes Afghan historian Asif Ahang, "the clever king Amir Abdul Rahman Khan used to check what the people said on the roundabout before executing any decision".

To this day, Afghans ask, in Dari, about Akbar-e Sar-e Chowk - the news from the roundabout.

If newly re-elected President Hamid Karzai sent his envoy there what would he find?

It is still a heaving vortex, a tide of four-wheeled and four-legged conveyance. Horse and human drawn carts jostle with buses and barrows.

Shouted orders

It is Constable Jamil's beat. The moustachioed policeman with an impressive peaked hat keeps it all moving with piercing whistle blasts and emphatic hand signals.

Women in burqas
These women are forced to sell their clothes to raise money for food

His megaphone cuts through the cacophony: "Bus driver! Do you know your right or left, oh brother? Fellow citizens... please clear the road."

The traffic goes round - in a fashion - and so does the news.

On the metal balcony of the roundabout restaurant we met three men who had travelled from the north, south and east of the country. Strangers shared food, and frustrations.

Sattar Shah, from the northern province of Baghlan, told us a tale of woe. He said his tractor was taken by corrupt officials whom he accused of wanting a bribe to give it back.

A bearded farmer with sad drooping eyes, complained: "No-one listens to us. I can't reach President Karzai or any other authority." And he had a warning too: "We have no choice but to turn to the Taliban or road robbery!"

Desperation

For some who descend on this place the roundabout is their last hope. In one of the poorest nations in the world, they are the poorest of the poor.

Afghan farmer
Sattar Shah said he had fallen prey to the country's widespread corruption

Rahmini hid her identity behind an all enveloping blue burqa as she sat on a jumble of her family's clothes, but there was no hiding her desperation:

"I have no life," she wailed, gesturing to the garments she was trying to sell to afford something to eat.

White-bearded Enayat stopped us as we went round the roundabout. Gesturing in the direction of the presidential palace, only a mile down the road, he said: "We respect the president. He is our elder."

But he was concerned about the ongoing security problems saying: "It is bad here, and it is worse in the provinces. The president must talk to the Taliban."

Intelligence gathering

We heard a more positive assessment from a young man who spends his time taking the positive from the negative. Twenty-year-old Pervaiz, who has never been to school, takes pictures using a wooden box of a camera that dates back to the dawn of photography.

Harking back to the days when the roundabout was a frontline in a brutal civil war in the 90s he said "Things are better now".

Pervaiz and camera
Pervaiz, who has never been to school, earns a living taking photos

But today there is a new threat - swine flu. The paper masks which some wear provide thin protection and most know that if the disease spreads here there is not much to stop it.

Every Afghan at the roundabout seemed to be fighting one battle after another in a place defined by a battered monument to Afghanistan's Unknown Soldier.

"I will serve my people until my last drop of blood," vowed Constable Jamil.

His message to the president? It was not surprising for a traffic policeman - better roads - and he suggested Mr Karzai should listen to his people.

High above the traffic, a white surveillance blimp bobbed above the presidential palace. The eye in the sky is one of the most modern of ways to gather intelligence.

But the president might find the old ways of kings still work best today.




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