Perched atop a hill in west Kabul sits the ruins of a neoclassical European-style palace that has come to signify the dualities of the 3,500-year-old Afghan capital.
To our parents and grandparents, the bombed-out remains of the Darulaman Palace serve as a reminder of a long-forgotten Kabul. A green city home to fewer than 500,000 people.
Though class distinctions were rife at the time, to them the palace is a reminder of a time before wars, suicide bombings and IEDs led to innumerable civilian casualties.
Constructed in the early 1920s, the building was envisioned as a centre of a new, ‘modern’ Afghanistan by King Amanullah Khan, the founder of the modern Afghan nation.
That vision is reflected in it’s name, meaning literally “Abode of Peace”.
To us, their children and grandchildren, the building serves as a symbol of everything that was lost in decades of unending conflict.
Whether we grew up in Afghanistan during a series of ongoing wars, or were forced to flee to Pakistan, Iran and the West, the building — now reduced to a crumbling structure — has become an icon of a calm we never experienced in our own country.
Now, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, wants to restore the palace to its former glory.
That plan was announced during the first meeting of the High Commission of Urban Development, held on the palace grounds.
“Today, we return to the past to begin laying the foundation for the future,” Ghani said at a press conference following the Monday meeting.
But that plan has led to a heated debate.
Some look upon the restoration plan — estimated to cost between $16 and $20 million — as a symbol of Ghani’s dedication to the rich history and culture of the nation.
Others, however, see it as an attempt to gloss over the scars of a conflict that still rages in a city that has increasingly been closed off to the people by security barriers and blast walls.
Omaid Sharifi, 28, is among those who oppose the reconstruction of the palace.
“We can turn it into a museum of war,” said Sharifi, who has spent his entire life in the Afghan capital.
With Kabul now surrounded by multi-coloured high-rises, wedding halls and shopping malls, Sharifi and others want the palace to serve as a constant reminder of the battles that raged in the city.
Sharifi has lived in 18 different locations throughout the capital. In that time, he, like millions of other Afghan youth, has seen the city undergo several transformations.
From the dying days of the communist regimes — each known for their brutality — to the civil war that saw bloody battles between mujahideen leaders segregate the city into several separate enclaves, to the Taliban rule and now the US-led intervention, Sharifi’s generation has become first-hand witnesses to the destruction of the city their parents and grandfathers look back on with fondness.
Though the war continues to rage in the capital — Darulaman Road itself has been the site of countless attacks — Sharifi fears younger generations may have lost sight of the battles waged in the city.
“This is important for our younger generation to see with their eyes what war did to us.”
Sharifi uses his 16-year-old sister as an example.
“I’ve lived here my entire life. I’ve seen it all, but my sister’s generation has little memory of the wars and conflicts.”
Rather than restoring the building, Sharifi wants to preserve it in its current bullet-riddled, graffiti-splattered state.
“We can make it safe, clean it up and restore the gardens, but keep some of the damaged walls inside glass cubes.”
A gardener working on the palace grounds agrees.
“People need to know the true cost of war — loss,” said the gardener, who would not give his name.
“It wasn’t just lives that were lost. Those rockets and bullets destroyed so much more. We lost our culture, our history and the knowledge that came with it.”
Others, however, want to move on.
To them, the best tribute to the king who helped defeat the British as a 26-year-old monarch would be to allow the building to once again serve as a beacon of the ‘modern’ Afghanistan he had envisioned.
“Who wouldn’t want their nation to advance and develop?” said Qader Shah Naderi.
The 38-year-old spent his entire life, including his time as a member of the mujahideen forces, in west Kabul.
Ghani, the Afghan president, has long called for the restoration of Darulaman Road, saying it should become the Champs-Élysées of Kabul. Early into his presidency, an Emirati firm presented him with their vision for a reformed Darulaman Road.
Though critics say the millions spent on the palace’s restoration could be used to provide basic services — hospitals, schools, electricity and proper irrigation — to the city, Naderi sees the reconstruction efforts as a source of employment in a nation currently reeling from a severe economic downturn. “It puts people who are struggling to provide food for their families to work. If it creates even 20 new jobs it will be worth it.”
Safiullah, 20, agrees. However, he does not agree with the government’s plans to turn the palace into a museum and venue for national ceremonies.
“This is part of our history, it belongs to all of us.”
In place of another highly-guarded official building that few, if any, Afghans have access to, Safiullah wants the palace to become a public space.
“Turn it into a park where families can come with their children and enjoy the gardens. The last thing the people of Kabul need is to suffer the indignities of yet another security check.”
Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2016