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Monday, 3 December, 2001, 17:03 GMT
Kabul's papers go to press again
Man inspects new news pages at Kabul printers
At one point the presses had more than 1,300 workers
Marcus George

In a back street near to one of Kabul's modern Russian-built neighbourhoods, a solitary printing press whirs away, spitting out an edition of Anis, one of the city's major newspapers.

What we need is help from abroad to rebuild our publishing capacity - you have to understand how screwed up it is here

Mohammed Yousef Bakhshi
Steam and acrid printing smoke lingers in the air around the press where a skull-capped Afghan worker monitors the spool.

This is a scene from generations past but, as more and more copies are reeled off, it becomes clear that it is the dawn of a new era in Kabul's news network.

But this is the only printing room still in operation. The others were long since destroyed in factional fighting during the last 10 years.

Tough times

Kabul's main publishing unit, responsible for the print of 14 newspapers, is now a shadow of its former self.

During successive Communist governments, it boasted 260 then hi-tech printing machines, run by more than 1,300 workers, many of them women.

Destroyed printing presses
The presses were burned down three times during fighting
But with the arrival of the mujahideen government in Kabul came its demise, according to the unit's technical manager, Mohammed Yousef Bakhshi.

"Our print rooms were burned down three times during fighting inside the city," he said.

"We now have very little equipment to use and can only produce four pages. We are subsidised by the government but have little means to increase our production rate."

The unit is also home to two other newspapers. However the Kabul Times, an English language paper, and the Pashto language Hewat are both awaiting their first edition since the end of Taleban rule in the capital.

"I don't know exactly when circulation will begin with them, Mr Bakhshi told me, "but it should begin the next few days."

Having worked in the Afghan newspaper industry for the last 36 years, Mr Bakhshi has witnessed at first hand the destruction of the city's once mainstream means of news.

But he reflects on the last chapter as being the most difficult.

Taleban punishment

"The Taleban were very strict in enforcing their rules and they did many evil things in Kabul.

"We couldn't print anything they didn't like and if we printed pictures, we would have faced a lot of punishment," he said, glancing at the front page of Anis's first edition which showed a picture of Afghan women.

Mohammed Yousef Bakhshi
Mr Bakhshi has worked in the press industry in Kabul for the last 36 years
"Even the director of Shariat, a pro-Taleban newspaper, was arrested and taken to Kandahar because the authorities didn't like something that was printed."

Two years ago Mr Bakhshi spent two weeks in confinement after the Taleban arrested him and accused him of having a weapon.

"I was left in a container for many days and they never told me why they had taken me.

"Finally my son came to find me and told them to let me go. But then they kept him for 12 days and beat him up badly.

"During these bad times I was always afraid for my family and wanted to leave the country. But I was needed here at the press so I couldn't go."

Appeal for help

Here was a man in his element and in control. He broke off our conversation every few minutes to issue orders to workers who hurriedly came and went.

It is not hard to understand his appeal for help to the outside world.

"What we need is help from abroad to rebuild our publishing capacity. You have to understand how screwed up it is here and that we need help," he said.

After a tour around the premises I understood it with little difficulty.

At present only 180 people work at the unit and it is difficult to imagine what they all do.

Out in the street, however, the public is hungry for news.

An Afghan "newsagent" was ambushed by hordes of people. Within minutes he had no more copies to sell and had to return to the press.

"I didn't think anyone would buy it, especially for 2,000 Afghanis (about 4p), he said.

"Now I know I will continue selling newspapers."

See also:

02 Dec 01 | South Asia
Kabul's new lease of life?
22 Nov 01 | South Asia
Fear and freedom in Kabul
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