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Afghan streets get overdue facelift

School children in Kabul crossed a plank over a newly dug drainage ditch.

Washington Post photo by Pamela Constable

School children in Kabul crossed a plank over a newly dug drainage ditch.

KABUL — On an ordinary weekday, the streets of Kabul are choked with traffic, fetid with clogged drains, and crammed with carts displaying potatoes or used sweaters. Shoppers, school children, and commuters on bicycles dodge and dart through the hazardous maze, often taking their lives in their hands.

As bad as that is, the ordeal just got much worse.

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For the past two months, bulldozers and backhoes have been tearing up dozens of busy city streets, gouging deep gulches for new drainage pipes and dumping piles of gravel, dirt, and tangled steel bars in the middle. Workers swarm between lines of traffic, hopping in and out of ditches and shouting through the din.

The ambitious, $45 million project — financed largely by the government of Japan and supervised by the Kabul mayor’s office — will eventually produce 60 miles of smooth pavement and modern drainage in an aged, war-savaged capital where the population has exploded from 2 million to 5 million in the past decade. For now, though, it has produced mostly chaos and complaints.

‘‘I can’t sleep at night because the machines are so loud, and I can’t breathe during the day because of all the dust,’’ said Mir Hazrat, 70, caretaker of a mosque in the Qalai-Fatullah district. He and his friend Fahim Hasibullah, a legless land-mine victim in a wheelchair, spend their days on the sidewalk, watching the work inch ahead. ‘‘I just pray they get done before the snow comes,’’ Hazrat says darkly.

The tumult is most intense along the 10-block commercial stretch between Qalai-Fatullah and Shar-i-Nau, which is lined with a hodgepodge of bakeries, barbers, fish markets, plumbing suppliers, and fashion boutiques with mannequins in sequined gowns. Beggars, phone-card hawkers, and onion-cart pushers complete the tableau, squeezing between stuck cars and mountains of rubble.

Mohammed Ismael, 65, owns a stylish real estate office on one of the worst-hit blocks. With no customers, he watches workmen pound metal struts into the ditch below his doorstep.

‘‘They should have done this years ago,’’ he said. ‘‘Now the foreigners are leaving, business is dead, and I can’t find a place to park my car.’’

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