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Rocky Terrain Slows Construction in Afghanistan

A German development team and local leaders discuss a new bridge to be built in Yawan, Afghanistan, funded by the Germans and Czechs.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
A German development team and local leaders discuss a new bridge to be built in Yawan, Afghanistan, funded by the Germans and Czechs.
Villagers use rocks and dirt from the mountainside to build a road.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
Villagers use rocks and dirt from the mountainside to build a road.

Six years after the fall of the Taliban, reconstruction in Afghanistan is slow at best.

Key projects like a paved "ring road" to link Afghanistan's provinces are far from complete, despite billions of construction dollars pouring into the country each year from three dozen nations.

Growing insecurity caused by insurgents is partly to blame. But terrain and tradition are often far greater obstacles.


In northeastern Badakhshan, dusty Afghan villagers are using shovels and pickaxes to turn a tiny mountain trail into a rare road linking the northern and southern parts of the province.

It's a painfully slow process. The men beat at the mountain to widen the trail into a single-lane road made of rocks and dirt. Debris is flung some 600 feet below into the riverbed.

A stubborn outcrop is dealt with more forcefully, using dynamite provided by the German team supervising this project.

"They drill the holes like a half meter deep, then they have plastic bags with dynamite powder and they push it in with a wooden stick," says Joerg Yoder, a manager for GTZ who is overseeing this 10-month-old road project.

The project costs half a million dollars and will eventually stretch six miles. Yoder admits the new road will be a far cry from any autobahn back home.


But Abdul Rahzed Rohani, the crew foreman, says the road is a lifesaver for his village. He says trucks will use the road to supply villages like Farghambol year round.

Rohani says that the $3 each of his workers earns daily is a small fortune by local standards.

"It's just so little what is here. You really have to do so many things just to get development started. Yeah, you really have to start from scratch here. Nothing has ever been done here," says Thomas Zahneisen, the civilian in charge of the German provincial reconstruction team.

This project is like most across Badakhshan — developing unpaved roads, wells and small bridges — all modest by Western standards.

But each is vitally important to the inhabitants of this mountainous region, because the nearly one million Afghans here live pretty much like their ancestors did centuries ago. Many families live in mud homes without electricity or running water or cars. They spend half the year growing food for themselves and their livestock so they can survive the other half of the year when they are socked in by snow.

Yoder, the program advisor for GTZ, a state-run, German development company, says it's impossible to meet Western expectations of how fast development should happen. Let alone to get villagers to follow standard business practices.

"We will not be able to shape Afghanistan according to our wishes," Yoder says. "That is one of the principal problems here. It's still an oral culture — many people do not know how to write and read and it's a very slow step-by-step process to introduce a requirement, like an official bill."

Afghans, too, are frustrated with the slow pace of reconstruction.

When Yoder and colleague Marina Kielpinski come to Yawan, not far from the border with the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, the local police chief does something unthinkable by Afghan standards of hospitality — he launches into a tirade over a badly needed bridge before greeting the visitors with steaming cups green tea.

Police Chief Najibullah quickly apologizes. He says he's upset because he worries a 90-foot bridge proposed for Yawan's river won't be done before the weather turns bad.

The bridge will connect seven northern districts with the rest of the province. Najibullah says it will also save Yawan's children and livestock from drowning, as sometimes happens here.

Kielpinski reminds the chief that while the Czechs and Germans are paying some $90,000 for the project, it's up to the villagers to build the bridge.

"The most important thing now is to select exactly the right place to start excavation and they can start now — the money is here and the project is ready to move forward," says Kielpinski. "But only the people who live here can tell us exactly where the water rises and how it will be in the springtime."

The village elders and German team eventually head to the river and agree on a spot for the bridge. The German team says that with a little luck and local elbow grease, the bridge could be ready by winter.

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