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Cell Phone Towers Escape Afghan Violence


In Afghanistan, one of the most dramatic changes since the fall of the Taliban five years ago has been in the realm of communications. In 2001 there were only about 3,000 functioning telephone lines in the country. Some Afghans traveled to Pakistan or other neighboring states just to make a call.

Now, as NPR's Ivan Watson reports, cell phones are all the rage, with nearly two million subscribers and four companies trying to cash in.


IVAN WATSON: This has become an all too common sound in Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of rington)

WATSON: Afghans in restaurants like this one in Kabul, talking into their cell phones as they eat kabobs.

WATSON: A few years ago just making a phone call was next to impossible in this country. Now, in Afghan cities at least, cell phones are a common site.

Does everybody here have a cell phone?


Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Can I see your cell phones? One, two, three, four, five.

In this bazaar in the northern city of Konduz, 25-year-old Pelinda Mohammed is one of a group of men proudly showing off their phones. Mohammed makes a living selling dumplings from a push cart.

How did you guys communicate before you had cell phones?

Mr. PELINDA MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) We went to the radio center and called our friends via radio, but that was very difficult. The other way was to send letters and that took almost 15 to 20 days to reach to the person we sent the letter to. But right now these mobile phones have made life very easy.

WATSON: Three years ago, an Afghan telecommunications company called Roshan turned on its cell phone service for the first time. Today it has more than a million subscribers and it continues to grow at the astonishing rate of more than 1,000 new customers a day.

Roshan's customer support center is located in the basement of a villa in Kabul.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: Here, dozens of young Afghan men wearing headsets sit in front of computer monitors answering customer calls. Usually they're technical questions, but this 20-year-old operator named Fedor Uzi(ph) says he also often gets calls from lonely Afghans who are just looking for a friend to talk to.

Mr. FEDOR UZI (Roshan Telecommunications Company): Sometimes the customer says to us, I'm in a place. There is no one to talk with me. Talk a story with me and they'll talk with me, like, that's some of them.

WATSON: Just want a friend.

Mr. UZI: Yeah, yeah.

WATSON: But some people use the new phone networks to do more than just reach out and touch someone. Kabul University professor Nasrallah Stanikzi says one of his colleagues, a human rights worker, recently fled the country with his family after receiving a threatening text message on his cell phone.

Professor NASRALLAH STANIKZI (Kabul University): He got a bad message from the Taliban. They told this guy we'll kill at you because you're active for the democracy. Democracy is against Islam. It is dangerous for you and for your family.

(Soundbite of ring tones)

WATSON: We tried calling Dr. Hamid, a Taliban spokesman who sometimes communicates with journalists from Afghan cell phones. This time he did not pick up.

Unidentified Woman: The (unintelligible) customer you have dialed is unavailable or has traveled outside the coverage area.

WATSON: Karim Khoja is the CEO of Roshan. He says his company has tried to stay politically neutral, even as it expands service into areas where the Taliban is present.

Mr. KARIM KHOJA (CEO, Roshan): We go to every village. We talk to every village shura. All the elders. They may be part of the Taliban. I can't deny that or not, but that's where we go to. We go to the grassroots.

WATSON: This year nearly 4,000 people have been killed in the escalating violence here. Taliban have torched hundreds of schools and attacked road construction crews, but a U.S. military spokesman says that in seven months he has heard of no act of sabotage against the hundreds of relatively vulnerable cell phone towers scattered around the country.

Roshan's CEO, Karim Khoja, says the need for cell phones is one thing both sides in the conflict agree on.

Mr. KHOJA: If you destroy your crops, you don't get food. If you destroy telephone towers, you're unable to speak. Everybody sees the value of being able to leave us alone. I'm not sure how long that will last, but we will do everything in our power to work with the local communities to show them we're committed to them and not any political force.

WATSON: Recently, two Afghan phone companies began construction of cell phone towers in the snowy mountains of the Salang Pass, some 15,000 feet above sea level. A freezing wind tears at a roadside stall here, where a shopkeeper wearing sandals stands in the snow selling fruits, nuts and cell phone scratch cards to passing travelers.

Mr. ABDUL KADUS(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

WATSON: I've had this shop for eight years, says the man, named Abdul Kadus, but I never imagined that we would one day have telephones here.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.