The Taliban's amusement park
Militiamen monopolise one of the few places Kabulis had for relaxation
Special envoy to KabulIt is Kabulis' favourite place to have fun, and on Fridays, which is the weekly rest day in Afghanistan, it was always packed. This is Bagh-e-shar, the amusement park in the centre of the Afghan capital. It is not the only one in the city, but it is the biggest and most successful. This Friday it was open, but it was not like before. Taliban militiamen have also come to enjoy themselves and can be said to have monopolised the attractions.
In the park there are the attractions that you can more or less find in a street fair in Spain: a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, a mini roller coaster... But it also has a children's playground, grassy areas -which are so scarce in Kabul- and even a real airplane converted into a restaurant. That's why Afghans like it so much, because it's a place to have fun, but also to relax. This Friday, however, few seemed relaxed.
At around three o'clock in the afternoon a group of Taliban entered the park. They were unarmed, because you can't bring weapons into Bagh-e-shar, but they were easy to spot because of how they looked: long hair, prominent turbans and black eyebrows. Entrance to the park costs 30 Afghanis (about 30 euro cents) and then you have to pay to ride the rides. It is not known if they have paid the entrance fee, but what is certain is that they have not paid to go on the rides and they have done it as many times as they wanted.
"It's the first time we've been here. The last two weeks we have been very busy", said a young Taliban to justify his excitement. First they went on the ferris wheel and, it seems, they liked it because they went on them again. Then they tried the boat and they really loved it. They monopolised the attraction for half an hour, without letting anyone else use it. But where they really went wild, literally, was in a spider-shaped attraction with seats that moved in a circular motion at full speed. Turbans flew and more than one Taliban was left dishevelled with his hair covering his face. There was no lack of laughter and shouts of enthusiasm, nor of onlookers trying to film the peculiar sight with their mobile phones. Then, too, the threats began: a Taliban who did not get on the ride wanted to snatch the mobile phones of those filming the militiamen.
"My daughters wanted to go on the rides but, with this scenario, you can tell me who goes on the rides", said one mother, Gulalai Anwari, looking horrified. The daughters - three girls aged 17, 15 and 14 - look bored, not quite sure what to do. "This is the first time we've come to the park since the Taliban came to Kabul, and it's really not what it used to be", adds the mother, who says they used to go to Bagh-e-shar several times a week. "I guess we will continue to come on Fridays until we leave for Pakistan", she says when asked if she plans to return. Her family is one more of those who plan to emigrate.
Another woman strolling through the park also says Bagh-e-shar has changed overnight. Her name is Mariam Kasemi, she is 33 years old and she too used to go to the park every Friday. "It's very depressing, there's no music playing on the rides anymore", she complains. In fact, the Taliban have banned music throughout the country. "And it's dead, there are hardly any people". There are four ticket booths in the park to sell tickets. This Friday only one was open, while beforehand, all of them were working and there were endless queues.
Moreover, it's not just the atmosphere, it's that the mere presence of the Taliban is intimidating. "They scare people", says a young man, Ramin Rahimi, 17, who watches from a distance, sitting on a bench, whilst the militiamen enjoy themselves on the rides. Nilofar, 22, who has gone to Bagh-e-shar with three friends, explains that she has changed the way she dresses. "I used to go in jeans and a shirt, and look how I go now". She wears a black tunic down to her feet, which hides the shape of her body. Her friends wear the same look.
Others have found another solution. Qais Khairdarzada, 33, explains that he used to go to the park every Friday with his family. This Friday, however, his wife and three children stayed at home. "It's no longer a place for them to come, so I came alone with my friends".