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The walls have eyes: Kabul's anti-corruption graffiti

Updated August 12, 2015

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An Afghan artist paints the design of the eyes of a woman on a barrier wall at the presidential palace in Kabul. ─ AFP
An Afghan artist paints the design of the eyes of a woman on a barrier wall at the presidential palace in Kabul. ─ AFP

KABUL: Under a soldier's watchful gaze, a group of artists paint a blast wall outside Kabul's presidential palace with a huge pair of eyes in bright, almost psychedelic colours.

Alongside the eyes, a slogan reads: “Corruption cannot be hidden from God or from the people”.

The project is not some guerrilla graffiti campaign but comes with the blessing of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani - bringing colour to the sometimes drab Kabul streets while pushing an anti-corruption message in a country where graft is rife.

Afghan artists and volunteers paint the design of the eyes of a woman on a barrier wall at the presidential palace in Kabul. ─ AFP
Afghan artists and volunteers paint the design of the eyes of a woman on a barrier wall at the presidential palace in Kabul. ─ AFP

One of the artists, 35-year-old Maryam, said the eyes were those of "all the Afghans who have had enough of corruption", gazing down on officials who might be tempted to take a backhander.

As the Taliban's insurgency has raged on, the grey cement blast walls have mushroomed in Kabul in recent years, usually to insulate the rich and powerful.

Read more: Wars killed 149,000 in Pakistan, Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014

That has prompted anger from Kabir Mokamel, one of the other artists who created the fresco. "They're supposed to protect us? No, I think they're supposed to protect the people who are inside. And me, I am outside the wall," he said.

Afghan artists paint the inscription 'corruption is not hidden from God and people's eyes' alongside an image of the eyes of a woman on a barrier wall at the presidential palace in Kabul. ─ AFP
Afghan artists paint the inscription 'corruption is not hidden from God and people's eyes' alongside an image of the eyes of a woman on a barrier wall at the presidential palace in Kabul. ─ AFP

The anti-corruption message, written in the two main Afghan languages of Dari and Pashto, resonates deeply in a country where the culture of graft is entrenched at every level of life and especially among public officials.

Ugly blast walls

Fourteen years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan remains stuck in the depths of Transparency International's annual corruption perception rankings, lying 172nd out of 175 countries.

Feeding the longstanding culture of graft is the lack of proper checks on the hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid that have poured in since 2001 to stabilise and rebuild the country.

The US Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, John Sopko, gave a blunt assessment of the dangers posed in a speech at Georgetown University last year.

An Afghan artist paints the inscription 'corruption is not hidden from God and people's eyes' on a barrier wall at the presidential palace in Kabul. ─ AFP
An Afghan artist paints the inscription 'corruption is not hidden from God and people's eyes' on a barrier wall at the presidential palace in Kabul. ─ AFP

"If corruption is allowed to continue unabated, it will likely jeopardise every gain we've made so far in Afghanistan," he said.

Read more: Afghanistan: is hope real?

Sopko's remarks came as Hamid Karzai, whose presidency was dogged by suspicions of industrial-scale corruption, handed power over to Ghani after a bitterly disputed election.

Ghani, a former World Bank economist, has made eradicating corruption one of his top priorities, but the challenge is enormous, said a government employee working on Maryam and Mokamel's project who did not want to be identified.

"Petty corruption is visible in every small office you visit," the official told AFP.

"We are attracting the attention of people, we are doing something through arts. It's a different method to fight corruption." And as Ehsan, a student from eastern Afghanistan, pointed out, corruption feeds into security problems.

An Afghan pedestrian walks past a painting on a wall showing a man pushing his wheelbarrow with a heart aimed to combat corruption in Kabul. ─ AFP
An Afghan pedestrian walks past a painting on a wall showing a man pushing his wheelbarrow with a heart aimed to combat corruption in Kabul. ─ AFP

"If the police arrest a kidnapper or a terrorist he can easily bribe the court and escape justice," he said.

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"Then it's another criminal who's free and can continue to plan attacks." Mokamel has already painted the large accusing eyes on the wall of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's main spy agency, and plans to decorate the whole of the wall around the presidential palace complex and central bank, all with the presidency's blessing.

"I have been trying to do this project for the last three years," he said.

"But now there are many young people inside the new government and they understand the value." In a militarised, concrete capital regularly hit by bloody attacks, street art is a rare sight. Aside from the political and artistic aspects of the project, Kabir sees it having an immediate benefit for all Kabulis.

"These blast walls - they're really ugly. Our idea was to put something on them so that they would disappear," he said.