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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Whenever we talk about the war-torn nation of Afghanistan, we often mentioned the capital, Kabul, sometimes just to identify where a correspondent is reporting from. Well, today let's pay the capital a true visit. Kabul was once this lush haven, a cultural center tucked in the mountains with several hundred thousand residents. But decades of war, migration and a rapidly growing population of five million people have left the city's infrastructure in ruins. Seventy percent of Kabul is now a cramped, ad-hoc development where water, sewers and electricity are all in short supply.

NPR's Sean Carberry has this profile of a city on the edge.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY AMBIANCE)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Kabul today is essentially an overcrowded, sprawling dustbowl. Between the lack of vegetation on the surrounding hills and the lack of pavement, there's a constant haze of dust hovering above the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CART MUSIC)

CARBERRY: If there's a defining sound of Kabul, it just might be the melodies of the ubiquitous ice cream carts. All day long you hear "Happy Birthday" or melodies that stick in your head like mental fly paper. And the carts are present in every neighborhood - even extremely poor ones like Tapimarinjan. It's a densely packed, unplanned neighborhood clinging to a hillside.

AJI GUL: (Through Translator) There is no electricity. There is no water, so we buy it from private businesses.

CARBERRY: Aji Gul has lived here for the last four years. He's a street vendor struggling to make ends meet. A rugged man in his 50's with reddish-brown skin, he once had a nice house in the city. He spent 10 years in Pakistan to escape the fighting in Kabul. And when he returned, he found he could only afford to live here, in Tapimarinjan.

GUL: (Through Translator) The government has no plans here. There are people trying to tell the government we need services. There are a lot of problems here but we have no choice. We can't afford to go anywhere else.

CARBERRY: Four years ago, he says there were a lot of vacant houses and empty lots here. Now, it's full of people from all over the country. Some came to escape fighting elsewhere in the country, others came hoping for better opportunities.

Seventeen people live in Aji Gul's small two-room house. Some homes here have more than 20 residents.

JOLYON LESLIE: The poorest people coming to the city are doubling up in houses, 'cause that's the closest that they can get to their jobs. So they tend to move in with relatives and stay long as they possibly as they can.

CARBERRY: Jolyon Leslie is an architect who's been working here for 20 years. He has a unique perspective on the growth of the city. We talk on the hillside near the Nadir Shah Mausoleum, a famous Kabul landmark.

LESLIE: We're looking out over to the east which used to be all agricultural areas. But as far as the eye can see, it's a kind of low-rise sprawl over towards the mountains. So the entire cityscape has changed.

CARBERRY: We walk to the other side of the hilltop. We pass a group of small girls fetching water for their homes and men and boys selling horse rides.

(SOUNDBITE OF A HORSE AND CART)

LESLIE: The old city's basically on the left. And the old city stretches over to the north to a blue dome, which is the Pul-e Khishti mosque, which is a 20th century mosque but on a very old site. So this was basically the entire extent of the city before.

CARBERRY: Now, the city center is like a buoy floating in a sea of sprawl. Leslie says that once a center of culture, commerce and educated classes, the city center more and more resembles a slum. As more poor people have crowded in to be closer to work opportunities, drugs, prostitution, and criminality have moved in as well.

But the scene isn't all bleak. There are some new high-rises going up and neighborhoods where people are renovating their homes. Houses painted in bright pastels, and sporting steel frame windows with mirrored glass, stand out against the mud-colored houses in the hills.

LESLIE: There's a very, very clear process of consolidation and gentrification.

CARBERRY: Leslie says that people who are living on what is technically seized government land are less worried about being kicked out, so they're investing more in their houses.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

LESLIE: And they're also more prosperous. I mean, there's no doubt about it. Look at those guys, they're putting on another floor on top of that building there. That money's coming from somewhere. Somebody has got a job or somebody has got a shop, so it's quite a positive sign, from that point of view.

CARBERRY: There is economic growth in the city. There are people who have made a lot of money, working in the security industry or in high-paying jobs with foreign aid organizations. At the same time, there's plenty of money coming from corruption and the country's massive opium trade. That's why people refer to the gaudy, new multi-story mansions springing up around the city as poppy palaces.

And Leslie says that although many of the hillside houses look well built from the outside, much of the new construction today is extremely shoddy.

LESLIE: So when there is the big - and it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. I think when the big Kabul earthquake happens, it's going to be quite scary depending on, you know, the intensity. Because a lot of these buildings that look quite nice are going to come down like a pack of cards.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

CARBERRY: Driving from the hilltop to the city center highlights another of Kabul's challenges - traffic. The mostly unpaved streets are choked with five to 10 times the number of cars they were designed to handle. On top of that, vendors, beggars, pedestrians, bicycles and donkey carts all compete for space. And there's not a working traffic light in the city. It can take hours to cross from one side of Kabul to the other.

Because of problems like this, people like Ghalub Nemat, a government engineer, are moving to some of the new planned developments on the periphery of the city.

GHALUB NEMAT: Because the periphery of Kabul is not yet polluted. And the rest of Kabul unfortunately, there were dreams, there were poets, there were poems, there were so many books written on Kabul - beautiful Kabul. But I'm not seeing it now.

(SOUNDBITE OF A PLANE)

CARBERRY: I'm standing in the parking lot of Shaharak Aria. It's a new planned community in Kabul. And I'm surrounded by five to six story off-white apartment buildings. This is very much of a gated, high-end community designed to be self-sufficient. Rather than car horns and ice cream vendors and people in the street, you hear periodic airplanes or helicopters flying overhead since it's across the street from the airport.

DR. MOHAMMED FARIDOON: (Through Translator) Here there is very good parking, playgrounds for kids, water 24 hours, modern construction, so we're all happy here.

CARBERRY: Dr. Mohammed Faridoon moved to Shaharak Aria three years ago. It has its own restaurants and grocery stores. It also has its own water supply and sewage system. By the time the development is complete, there will be thousands of apartments and a shopping mall, so people will only have to venture from this urban island to go to work.

FARIDOON: (Through Translator) I like this because it's a closed compound. It's very good in terms of security. It's so quiet and peaceful. My old neighborhood was noisy and there were lot's of problems.

CARBERRY: Ultimately, many with means are looking to escape the chaos of Kabul, to isolate themselves in secure compounds away from the masses struggling to get by. But only a tiny minority can hide out in these gated communities. The rest are stuck trying to survive in a city stretched way beyond its capacity.

Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you're listening to NPR News.

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