FREELY Blaze-hit Kabul stores race deep
freeze By Ali M Latifi
KABUL - As hundreds of workers busily
swarm around him, Zaidullah stands inside the
gutted remains of one of his family's shops in a
Kabul market. His properties, two retail outlets
and one wholesaler, were razed in a fire that
raged through Mandawi, one of the Afghan capital's
busiest markets, in December.
says the blaze, believed to have been caused by an
electrical shortage, cost him over US$200,000 in
merchandise and destroyed bank notes.
Local authorities blame two items found
throughout the market for the extent of the damage
caused to the over 600 shops - the gas canisters
merchants use to provide heat and the cloth that many
of the items in the market
were made of.
When he was finally allowed
in to assess the damage himself, Zaidullah noticed
that the door to his stores were ajar. Going from
stand-to-stand, the 25-year-old merchant noticed
his were not the only shops to have been left
"Something happened, it seemed
planned", said Zaidullah as workers pushed carts
of concrete and sawed wood around him.
More worrying for the merchants, however,
said Zaidullah, was the fact that their safes also
suffered extensive damage in the fire. "More than
the goods, we lost physical money" he said.
Like Zaidullah, other area merchants
stored their money in what they were told were
Chinese-made safes. The businesses in the in-door
shopping plaza dealt almost exclusively in foreign
goods - "90% comes from China, the other 10% from
India, Iran and Pakistan", said another local
Merchants and business owners
have long complained about the inequities of the
duties imposed on goods produced in Afghanistan
compared to those shipped from other Asian
nations. Imports into Afghanistan are charged
tariffs between 3 and 5%. Duties on goods
originating in the Central Asian nation, however,
can reach as high as 30%.
response Zaidullah and other merchants felt
doubly betrayed by the fire. The government, said
Zaidullah, "provided some workers to aid in the
clean-up for a few days", but now the shop owners
and their employees must use what means they have
left to rebuild. Lacking a proper insurance
industry, Zaidullah said merchants hoped the
government could provided some financial
assistance, but "so far not one penny has come",
Akhtar Mohamed, a driver who says
he takes both merchants and customers to and from
the market daily, says the damage was in "the
The government, he says, has no
one to blame but itself for the damage to one of
Kabul's most trafficked areas. "They had been
warned for some time that there was no
preparation" for a disaster, the 42-year-old said
from his taxi parked on the bank of the Kabul
In response to the fire, the Afghan
government has given all businesses in the country
two months to purchase commercial property
insurance or risk being closed. The Insurance
Affairs Department of the finance ministry has
also begun to formulate a policy that would see
greater regulation of the nation's insurance
industry. As a safeguard against similar
situations, providers will have to obtain
supplementary insurance to ensure clients can be
paid in a timely manner.
For the merchants
in Mandawi the policy shifts have come too late.
But it's not just Afghan officials which have
earned their ire. Like so many other aspects of
Afghan lives, the merchants thought they could
turn to the products of neighboring nations for
As 90% of their product came from
the People's Republic, the sellers thought they
were all accustomed to Chinese products, but they
say it was Chinese craftsmanship that has caused
them so much devastation.
"We heard they
were from China, we just assumed they would work",
The merchants all estimate
it will take at least two-and-a-half weeks to
repair their stores and at least another month to
get them operational.
"It will take time.
We have to paint, we have to wait for supplies to
come from China, India and Iran. This won't be
fixed quickly", a local seller said.
then, the merchants say they will press forth with
their repair work, but with each passing day,
Kabul's winter air grows colder. As the winter
weather grows harsher in January and February it
will become more difficult not only to continue
hammering and sawing, but to lure customers onto
the streets of Kabul, already wet from ice and
Ali M Latifi is an Afghan
journalist based in Doha, Qatar.