Inside the Kabul Zoo: A Sign of Afghanistan's Future?

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Afghan men and boys watch a monkey at the Kabul Zoo on Feb. 2, 2010

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Le Monde.

In the shade of the tall fir trees, a small crowd walks past a fountain and along the menagerie's dry paths. Behind the wire fences, animals bask placidly in the sun. White and brown bears, peacocks, macaques, gazelles, wolves, eagles, owls and parrots capture the attention of their friendly audience. It is important to find time for relaxing, even in troubled Afghanistan.

Along with the Shar-e-Now park (famous for its Bollywood movie theater) and the Babur Gardens, the Kabul Zoo is one of the havens for the capital's inhabitants to forget their everyday worries and fears of the future. The day before, not far from the zoo, a suicide squad attacked a police station, killing nine people. Within a few hours, the streets were empty. But today, the people are out again, sweeping into the markets, crowding the sidewalks. Life must go on.

The zoo's visitors reflect the mixed urban population of Kabul. A young man in jeans walks next to a woman in a blue burqa. Inside the aquarium, a woman points out the shimmering colors of the fish to her handicapped son. The child is amazed. Opposite the gazelles' pen, a refreshment stall sells sodas and kebab sandwiches. Some visitors doze in the cool shade of the trees. The zoo is surrounded by the winding hills of Kabul, a cirque of rock flanked by ochre adobe houses. The light is so bright that the stony ridges seem to be on fire.

For Aziz Gul Saqeb, the zoo director, this is his personal battleground. He invites us into his large office with its purple, flowery rugs. The computer and the television show some affluence, signs of an Afghan state striving to exist. The zoo, the pride of the 1960s Kabul when King Mohammed Zahir Shah undertook the modernization of the country, must live again. It's a question of principle. Trained in India, the young director sought support from overseas zoos. The Zoological Society of London and the North Carolina Zoo answered his call. But with serious debts, recovery is painstaking.

It was the civil war that steadily devastated the Kabul Zoo, which was situated right on the front line. Following the collapse of the communist regime in 1992, mujahedin factions plunged the country into violence and chaos. With no one feeding them, the animals that were once numbering 400 died of hunger. Fighters helped themselves as though the zoo were a butcher shop's backroom. Deer and ducks ended up in cooking pots. But bears, tigers, monkeys and eagles escaped the hungry militiamen because consuming them was considered to be haram, or forbidden. These animals died of negligence or were hit by stray bullets. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, they limited the damage. Saqeb says, "They built new outer walls" and "gave food to the surviving animals."

The tragedy of Marjan the lion sums up the zoo's misfortune. Ah, Marjan! The Kabulis still talk about him with emotion. He was paraded as a national emblem. His story is a parable for Afghan martyrdom. The Germans gave Marjan to the zoo in the late 1960s, when the director of the zoo was prince Nader, the King's son. Next to the extremely rare Bactrian deer, Marjan was the pride of the institution. In 1993, at the height of the civil war, a daredevil had a strange idea of slipping into his den to defy him. Marjan made short work of his opponent, who quickly died. The next day the victim's brother took revenge by throwing a grenade at the lion's snout. Marjan lost one eye and his teeth.

"Look how he suffered," murmurs Saqeb as he shows a photo of the disfigured lion. Marjan's face was scarred, he was permanently blinded, but he survived. He died of old age in 2002, just as the new Afghanistan started offering some signs of hope. A bronze statue of Marjan now stands at the zoo's entrance. Visitors stroke him lovingly and ask to be photographed with him. Marjan is immortalized as a hero.

The day after Marjan died, the Chinese gave Afghanistan two new African lions. Later they added two bears, substitutes for the pandas they usually give as diplomatic gifts. Pakistan tried to outdo China with a gift of Kashmir peacocks. This is how the menagerie is slowly being repopulated. Saqeb prefers to have animals from Afghanistan, but local wildlife, like the Badakhshan snow leopard, is under threat from animal traffickers. "Putting an endangered species in a zoo is out of the question," asserts Saqeb.

In any case, the residents of Kabul don't necessarily flock to the menagerie to see a precious wildcat. They go to enjoy this quiet oasis, its cool shade, its sodas, its kebab sandwiches and the myth of King Marjan.

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