A bear named Opel after the German car manufacturer is one of the last real attractions at the Kabul zoo. His muzzle, festering from a wound inflicted by a visitor, he paces nervously in his cage, peering helplessly through the bars.
As in the case of most of the animals here, his wound remains untreated. The last surviving bear of three, he looks for food - but there is none to be had. A young boy throws him a stone he has found in the nearby rubble. Like in much of this devastated city, rubble in the zoo is one of the few things there is plenty of. “We once had a beautiful zoo with hundreds of different types of animals and birds,” 46 year-old Sher Aqa, the zoo’s caretaker, told IRIN. Having worked at the zoo for about 13 years, he says: “That was a long time ago. Now this is all we have left.” After years of war and in the throes of an impoverished and devastated economy, there is little left to resemble a zoo today.
The bullet-riddled administration building suffered a direct hit in a rocket attack years ago, and ceases to provide anything but a backdrop to the misery of the animals. Among the empty cages, overgrown grass, heaps of rubble and open sewers, there is only pain and suffering - merely a macabre entertainment for the more than 100 visitors who still wander in daily. According to Aqa, with the front line running directly through the zoo, many of the animals died during the intensive fighting between the Muslim factions which battled for control of the Afghan capital between 1991 and 1995.
Marjan the lioness, coincidently the same age as Aqa, remains the undisputed main attraction at the Kabul zoo. But she, too, is ill, and has not been seen for days. Blinded by a grenade explosion years ago, Marjan stays inside her house as the sun’s rays beat relentlessly down on the roof. Today, six monkeys, two wolves, a lonely deer and an assortment of birds and rabbits are the zoo’s only other denizens. Pointing with his stick at the rabbit cage, Aqa still finds the humour to muster a smile when he remarks that “fortunately, rabbits multiply no matter what”. The municipal authorities are unable to assist the zoo.
Food for the animals and salaries for staff are paid for out of the US $10 a day revenue received from admissions. But most people never pay the two US cents admission rate, Aqa confesses, opting to “wander in” like everyone else. “We do the best we can with limited resources, but we simply don’t have enough food and medicine for the animals. The situation is quite sad.” Even fresh water for the animals remains scarce. Many of the animals suffer from malnourishment and disease. Most will eventually die. Hardly a sanctuary for animals, they are doomed to an existence of misery and death by the people who would normally care for them.
Nonetheless, despite its pathetic condition, the zoo continues to provide a welcome escape in a country where entertainment has to all intents and purposes been banned under the strict edicts of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, who took the city in September 1996. Cinemas closed, and television, music and even dancing strictly forbidden, there is precious little entertainment available to divert the inhabitants of Kabul away from their troubles.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.
Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.
We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.
Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian.