Costly Park Project Puzzles Afghan Residents

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan, July 10, 2007 (ENS) - A new park being laid out by the British-led reconstruction team in Helmand is supposed to provide a welcome respite from the heat and violence of this southern province - but residents are asking why so much money is being spent on leisure when the most pressing problem security is getting worse by the day.

The seven-hectare park will lie on the banks of the broad Helmand river, on the outskirts of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, and will provide fresh air, fountains, flowers, picnic areas and recreational facilities for the city's estimated 100,000 people.

The work is being funded by the United Kingdom through the Provincial Reconstruction Team, PRT, in Lashkar Gah, which is headed by the British. But at US$700,000, the price tag is a bit steep for many in Helmand's capital to understand, especially when the security situation seems to be worsening day by day.

"Almost 80 percent of the work is complete," said Engineer Esanullah, head of the Helmand office of the Helping Afghan Farmers Organisation, HAFO, which began implementing the work in late March.

"The park is supported by DfID [Britain's Department for International Development]."

Lashkar Gah residents bathe in the Helmand River. (Photo courtesy British Ministry of Defence)
The location of the park, on the other side of the Helmand river, has raised some eyebrows in the city. The area, known as Bolan, is largely off-limits for residents of Lashkar Gah, who fear the Taliban across the water.

Bolan is one of the richest opium poppy-growing areas in Helmand province, and becomes especially unstable at harvest time, when crop eradicators, farmers and the Taliban vie for influence.

In most people's minds, Bolan is more closely associated with explosions, kidnappings and killings than children's swings and flowerbeds.

"For two years now, there have been remote-controlled explosions on the main Bolan road," said Gul Mohammad, 35, a farmer. "I think mines will be laid in this park. That will keep people from going there."

"People are now being killed even inside Lashkar Gah," said Mohammad Ekhlas, 25, a shopkeeper in the city. "I don't think anybody will go to this park."

Amir Mohammad, 44, agreed, adding, "If the international community wants our country to be prosperous, they should first worry about peace and security. Then we can have parks."

Daud, 36, thinks it would be better to invest reconstruction money in creating jobs.

"If the PRT is really interested in helping us, it would do better to set up a factory here to help the unemployed," he said.

An American soldier admits Lashkar Gah residents to a medical clinic. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Drew Lockwood courtesy U.S. Army)

While exact figures are hard to come by, some estimates put the unemployment rate at 40 percent or more. Most of those who do work are employed in the province's booming, but highly illegal, opium industry.

But Ghulam Nabi, the head of the regional agriculture department, says that the provincial government has made the park a priority because people really need it.

"This park is being built to international standards," he said. "We are very happy that we'll have this kind of park in Helmand, and I think people will come here from all over the place to enjoy themselves."

Ghulam Nabi noted that the park would be segregated, with some days of the week set aside for women, and others for men. The exact schedule has yet to be worked out.

"It depends on the security situation," he said.

Women in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province (Photo courtesy InstaBlogs: The Muslim Woman)
In this very traditional part of Afghanistan, there may be few takers for the women's park. Helmand's largely Pashtun population adheres to the older codes of behavior, which to a great extent restrict women to the home.

The instability in Helmand will deter many women from traveling to the park, as will the Taliban's hostility to women who behave in ways seen as unconventional an attitude which sometimes translates into violence.

"I don't think this park is against Islam," said Mohammad Zaher, 60, who lives in Lashkar Gah. "The problem is that men are not accustomed to going to parks along with their women. And they won't let women go on their own."

Abdul Halek, 22, a resident of Bolan, agreed. "Although our house is very close to this park, we will never let our women go there," he said. "This park will be only for men."

But some younger people women as well as men are looking forward to having a place where they can relax outdoors.

"I really want to be able to go there with my family," said Malika, an eighth grade female student in Lashkar Gah.

Zahra, 25, said she hoped the Bolan park would start a trend. "We need more parks in Helmand so that everybody can to enjoy them," she said.

Young men pay little heed to security risks and are desperate for a place to congregate with their friends apart from the dusty, treeless streets of Lashkar Gah.

"My friends and I will really enjoy this park," said Mahmud, 18, from Bolan. "We'll ask the government and the international community to make more and more of them."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.