By Rina Chandran
KABUL - Kabul is rising from the ashes, shedding decades of war and mountains of trash to rebuild its pummelled culture.
It's no small job.
When restoration began in the Old City, some locals had moved their 'front door' to the second storey, so high were the heaps of garbage piled against their homes.
Today, more than a decade on, dozens of mud and wood courtyard homes have been restored in the historic Murad Khani district, and locals throng its narrow alleys and weave through its once decimated bazaar of food stalls and shops.
In a city brimming with security checkposts and newbuilds, old mosques, community bath houses and gardens have come back to life, drawing visitors and locals alike.
"The preservation of cultural heritage is important, and is far more valuable than converting Kabul into a sterile, glass-and-steel city," said Pietro Calogero, a professor of urban studies at the San Francisco State University.
"Monuments and cultural heritage are integral to the political effort to win the loyalty of the Afghan people."
Forty years of war, from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s to internal strife and Taliban rule, have destroyed much of Afghanistan's prized art, artefacts and architecture.
When the Taliban government was ousted in 2001, restoring monuments and historic neighbourhoods was a low priority, given the urgent need for essentials from roads to sewer lines.
So non-profits - including the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and Britain's Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TMF) - stepped into the void.
"The restorations instilled a sense of pride in the local community," said AKTC general manager Luis Monreal, who credits the build with also creating homes, jobs and tourism.
"Far more than a programme of historic preservation, the work has sought to contribute to the lasting redevelopment of the economy, society and culture of the country," he said.
CASUALTY OF WAR
From the English cathedral city of Coventry bombed in World War II, to Syria's ancient Palmyra desecrated in 2015, cultural sites have often been a casualty of conflict.
In Afghanistan, the militant Islamic group blew up giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyan province in 2001, and destroyed scores of smaller artefacts dating from the third century.
A U.S.-supported project at the national museum of Kabul aims to reassemble thousands of broken fragments of Buddhist artefacts into statues within the next three years.
Other projects focus on old Kabul, a city of nearly 5 million, most of whom live in unplanned, informal settlements.
"The government lacked the resources to restore damaged heritage structures, even if it recognised the merit in doing so," said Kabul Mayor Ahmad Zaki Sarfaraz.
"So we encouraged the participation of non-profits and others in preserving Afghan heritage, which is a way for the city to recover and boost its revenue potential also," he said.
In 2002, AKTC signed a deal to restore several buildings, monuments, parks and other public spaces in Kabul.
In the Asheqan wa Arefan area, AKTC renovated more than two dozen homes, buildings and bath houses; it paved alleyways, built drains and improved water supplies, Monreal said.
The project provided training and work for dozens of locals in conservation, along with old crafts such as carpet weaving, woodwork, glass-blowing and tile making, he said.
"Afghan traditional cities and architecture are the product of centuries of development, which have a direct bearing on regional identity and sense of place," Monreal said.
"A rich cultural heritage in danger of being cast aside in the race to modernity after years of war was a significant element in reconstruction, not only of buildings, but awareness and professions that contribute to Afghan identity," he said.
BUSINESS IS BACK
In Murad Khani, an 18th century area just north of the Kabul river, TMF has restored some 50 houses, and set up an institute to train Afghans, women included, in woodwork, ceramics, calligraphy, jewellery and glazed tiles.
Their output is sold by well-known global brands such as Kate Spade, Monsoon and Asprey, according to its website.
At one courtyard house, the walls have been fortified and the restored woodwork gleams in the sun.
"It is good that it is being renovated and preserved for future generations," said Safia Ahmad, who says the house has been in her husband's family for generations.
Parts have been left for residents to fix, though, and Ahmad said they could not afford to repair the cracks in the walls and stop the ceiling from caving in.
"We will have to wait till we have the money to do it," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, men sit outside the mosque chatting, and shoppers throng the food stalls and shops.
Some businesses moved in after restoration, said Murtaza Masoomi, who has run a silver jewellery shop for 20 years.
"More people come here now because the roads have been cleared and paved, there are more shops, and it is cleaner and nicer," he said.
"It is good for us, good for Kabul that more people are coming here. It means things are getting better."