Zoo a haven for war-scarred Kabul residents

Children petting a statue of Marjan, once the most famous resident at Kabul Zoo - and symbol of Afghan survival. Now, more than a decade after its death, Afghanistan remains battered by war but the zoo is buzzing again and is a welcome refuge for the
Children petting a statue of Marjan, once the most famous resident at Kabul Zoo - and symbol of Afghan survival. Now, more than a decade after its death, Afghanistan remains battered by war but the zoo is buzzing again and is a welcome refuge for the city's residents.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

KABUL • Its scarred lion Marjan was for years a symbol of Afghan survival.

Now, more than a decade after its death, Afghanistan remains battered by war but the Kabul Zoo is buzzing again - a haven for women, children and young lovers in a capital city that has little public space for anyone but men.

The carnival of animal life may be a mundane affair compared to other places, but it seems like an anomaly in Kabul, a war-scarred city benighted by post-traumatic stress, which still faces a high risk of insurgent attacks.

Men with children, women in blue burqas and crowds of young students - girls and boys - come to this haven to relax.

"My wife and I have come here to take a break and forget our pain and sorrows," says Mr Mohammad Ali Akbari, a resident of southern Ghazni province, one of the worst hit by the Taleban insurgency.

Children, amused by monkeys swinging from their tails and frolicking, imitate their whoops and barks. Loud music emanates from the zoo canteen near an aviary with pheasants and other birds, as families huddle in conversation around burgers, fries and canned drinks. Blushing young lovers sit on a bench opposite the gazelle cage, seeking an escape from prying eyes in a city where harassment is otherwise commonplace.

The zoo - the only one in the country - is located in the heart of the Afghan capital, surrounded by a dense warren of muddy flat- topped houses.

Before the 1992-1995 civil war, the zoo was home to many exotic animals. But most of them were either killed or escaped as mortar rounds slammed into the facility during fighting, leaving only a bear with a nose injured by children who jabbed it with a stick, a scattering of monkeys, an assortment of birds of prey - and Marjan, the showpiece lion. It was blinded by a grenade blast in 1993.

Many of the smaller and tamer animals, such as sheep and goats, were stolen for food. More exotic creatures, such as rare species of birds, were sold on the black market or smuggled out of the country.

The zoo has since undergone a slow and painful reconstruction, now housing around 600 animals, many of them gifts from countries such as India and China.

"It is now more than a zoo," said Mr Aziz Gul Saqib, who has served as director for more than a decade.

The zoo, he said, earned 17 million Afghanis (S$340,000) last year from ticket sales and other revenue, making it self-sustainable. It is equipped with surveillance cameras and loudspeakers - often used to chide those who tease the animals.

"It is very important to teach people about wildlife because exotic animals in Afghanistan are on the verge of extinction," Mr Saqib said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline 'Zoo a haven for war-scarred Kabul residents'. Print Edition | Subscribe