Afghan boys play inside clay ovens in Kabul. Image Credit: Reuters

Until recently, 11-year-old Mohammad Shafiq's days followed an agreeable pattern — school during the day and evenings in the large, vacant plot in front of his house. He would play football with his friends and his sister would ride the swing nearby under his watchful eye. Both children had made the ground their own special space since their family moved to Kabul from Pakistan, where they were both born, four years ago. A few weeks ago, Shafiq was one of the children who headed to the same ground on a Friday afternoon to join a group of about 500 residents protesting plans to construct housing flats there. "There is nowhere else where we can go to have fun," he explains. "If we try to set up a cricket match near the buildings, the grown-ups yell at us for hitting the cars. Everybody needs a park to play in."

Shafiq and his family live in Macroyan, the Soviet-era residential compound in east Kabul that saw heavy fighting during the civil war. Despite the bullet holes on the walls and peeling façades of the buildings, however, the locality is one of the few that still shows evidence of planning. Women walk relatively freely on its leafy, parallel roads and toddlers weave bicycles around the small, open spaces in front of each building. The plot that is the heart of the controversy lies on the edge of the Macroyan 4 complex, where Shafiq lives. Residents claim it has been earmarked for the past 23 years as a site for a public park. That is why when they found out that the Ministry of Urban Development proposed to build a new complex of flats there, the residents got together to protest.

"When we approached the authorities, they told us that the plot has always been intended for residential blocks," says Abdul Shukkur Dadrsas, lawyer and spokesperson for the Residents Association of Macroyan 4. "We waited all those years patiently since the conditions were bad, but now that times are better they want to sell off the land instead of giving it to the children."

In March, builders attempted to lay the foundation stones for the flats and uprooted the swings and goalposts under police cover. But after a flurry of meetings and protests, the work was halted. The respite turned out to be temporary, though. But even as builders work on the ground, the Residents Association says it will continue its efforts until they stop. "We have begun the fight," says Dadras, with a mixture of defiance and apprehension. "Let's see how it ends."

The conflict is small but unusual — not least for being a local citizens' movement in a country where civil society institutions have been pounded by decades of sectarian wars. It also concerns an idea that rarely finds mention even in the aid-driven agendas for the city — the right of Afghan children to have safe, open spaces for play. In many ways, the tussle over this small patch of land is a microcosm of the larger forces playing out in Kabul's complex post-conflict landscape today. As the city sprawls into mountains and surrounding suburbs, land prices and population booms and signs go up advertising new colonies on its edges, Kabul's young population finds itself being squeezed for space.

"The loss of many public open spaces in Kabul is primarily due to pressure on land in an overheated urban landscape," says Jolyon Leslie, architect and long-time Kabul resident, "but the lack of any form of regulation has also enabled encroachments to take place."

Since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, the city's population has shot up from 1.2 million to about 5 million in 2010, stretching its shattered infrastructure to the limit. In the same period, the city area has grown fourfold. Most of the growth has been in unplanned, unrecognised colonies that have mushroomed on mountain slopes and city edges. As land prices rise, traditional Kabuli houses, with their large gardens and high walls to shut off the street, are being torn down and replaced by malls, apartment blocks or showy "Mashallah Mansions" that conform to a new idea of luxury for wealthy Afghans. The construction and real estate boom, combined with the intense political pressure on land, leads to instances such as the one reported by the Kabul-based Pajhwok news agency recently — involving the allegedly illegal "sale" of 140 acres of public land, originally intended for a green belt, to a private construction company.

Even in humble-looking Macroyan, the cost of a three-bedroom flat was $20,000-$30,000 (Dh73,400-Dh110,100) in 2002. Now it fetches about $120,000 on the market and about $500-$600 on rent. According to Dadras, the official plan is to construct seven new blocks with nine storeys each, or 250 new apartments. Which makes Shafiq's playground a very expensive one indeed.

Besides the pressure on land, says Seddiqa Rezai, the idea that children need time and space for play is itself low on the priority list of Afghans. "Children grow up really fast in Afghanistan," she says. "Playing is seen as a waste of time. Even schools have no recess for play, let alone a playground for students."

Rezai's documentary, a touching portrait of child labourers working in Kabul's brick kilns, has been screened across the world. "My protagonists are poor children, yet they create their own spaces for fun, even if it is just sliding down snowy roads in winter. But don't they deserve to have places where they can feel safe and happy, and maybe learn something while they have play?"

Rezai's husband Ali Hazara is also a filmmaker and a poet who writes for children. Both grew up in Iran, returning eight years ago to Kabul. Recently, moved to a rented house in the west of Kabul, to an area called Dasht-e-Barchee. Set back from the road, the mud houses and winding lanes of their locality give it the look of a charming village. But even here, they found, there was no place for their daughter Kebriya, 4, and son Kabir, 2, to play. "This area had a hard war," Hazara says. "Everything you see around you has been constructed over the past 4-5 years." Despite that, he points out, "If you walk down 500 metres from our house, there are eight mosques on this lane. But there isn't a single park where I can take my children. This city is like a prison to them."

There is a certain irony in this portrait of Kabul, as a place of cramped and joyless spaces without the gentler rhythms in which children can participate. "It used to be a great place to be a child in, a really peaceful small town," recalls Daoud Wahab, who grew up in Kabul in the last few years before Afghanistan's descent into violence. "There weren't so many proper parks, but every so often there would be a grove of trees with a stream running through it, and people would bring carpets and tea and sit there in the evenings after work, and we children would play football around them."

On weekends, families would flock to spots such as Bagh-e-Bala, a summer palace built by a former king. "Greenery was part of our lives even the new part of town, Shahr-e-Nau, was built around a huge park," Wahab says. The heart of an expensive suburb, the park was frequented by a chic crowd of youngsters and Kabul's elite, who flocked to the tony cinemas, burger joints and wooden kiosks selling the new editions of Tarzan comics.

The large park still exists, but as a derelict patch of green hemmed in by the traffic jams that characterise this locality. "It's not just about having the space but also safety," says Mirwais Ahmadi, lawyer and father, whose house is perched on the edges of the Asmai Mountain in the centre of Kabul. "Most of our public spaces have been allowed to become overrun by drug dealers or children who sit and smoke."

Adding to these issues is the rising incidence of kidnapping. According to recent news reports, the Afghan Child Protection Network estimates this number has gone up from 500 in 2007 to 2,164 in 2009. Most are linked to ransom demands, says the report, but there are also instances of child trafficking for sexual abuse, or for use as suicide bombers. The result is a young population that spends most of its waking hours indoors. "Most of our time was spent outside with our friends, but children today are hemmed inside with adults all the time," Wahab says. "This is not a balanced kind of growth."

Besides the unplanned growth and lack of a policy, many feel the problem is also in part a failure of the international community that came to rebuild Afghanistan.

According to Rhianon Bader of the NGO Skateistan, this is because "youth is not a priority. Investing in projects for recreational and sports spaces is not difficult or expensive but very little funding goes to them, although this is where the potential for change lies."

The skate park set up by the organisation is one of the rare spaces in the city where children of all backgrounds and ethnicities can mingle freely, learn skateboarding and enjoy themselves. "We have children all skating together. It's a huge thing, especially for girls, who rarely get to make friends outside the family, meet people who are different and question the prejudices and barriers they grow up with."

For an hour in the skate park, children have to spend an hour in the classroom, learning and playing. "We've learnt many things, such as photography and doing theatre, and shot a film of ourselves doing a play," Hamed Allah, 14, says. His favourite part, though, is simply to skate around.

Besides the structured classes, Skateistan also runs informal sessions in a disused fountain in Macroyan, which anyone can just drop in for. Classes are taught by an older student, who commands a small group of street children, assiduously strapping on their safety pads before zooming around the concrete surface. Just the presence of children has transformed the nature of the space, Bader says. "That park used to be a hangout for people on drugs or those causing trouble, but as soon as the skateboards came out, it became a place for play. All they needed was a patch of concrete to change things," she says.

But the solution, says Leslie, is not a matter of "parks" and playgrounds. "Some of the nicest play-areas I have seen in Kabul are well-planted alleys or streets, which have been created and maintained by residents themselves."

While the absence of open green spaces affects all social classes, he adds, "arguably the poor feel the loss more keenly, as they have few alternatives for recreation".

The hardest time for salaried parents such as Lailoma Shamim is the long winter vacation, when the house is simply too small for her four energetic children and elderly relatives. "I take them to office with me, where they at least have company with all the other children who are escaping from home," she says. Other parents try to create virtual playgrounds inside the house. The Hazara and Ahmadi families have both created playrooms for their children

On weekends, they join the rush of families driving out to the nearby lakeside picnic spot of Qargha, or the ruined palace of Dar-ul-Aman. For a few hours, they say, they have the satisfaction of seeing their children experience freedom.

It is that same small glimpse of normalcy that the Macroyan residents are loath to let go of. "It was never a great park, but if it becomes a block of flats, even the little bit of happiness our children get from playing here will be taken away," says Fahima Walipur, a long-time resident of the complex. "Perhaps if it is made into a proper park like it was meant to be, even girls and women will be able to use it."

At the moment, the future for this dream looks grim. As weeks pass and construction continues, it seems the Residents Association may be fighting a losing battle. At the very least, Walipur takes heart from the fact that neighbours in this divided country came together on a common platform.

Ask her if Afghanistan doesn't have bigger problems and she flares up. "Of course, but those are for the government to deal with. This is about our homes and our lives." In a country worn out by 30 years of war, says Walipur, "we have shown people that a park is worth fighting for".

[Some names have been changed upon request. Nazira Babori contributed to reporting]


Engineering open spaces

Ever since he took charge of the Kabul Municipality about two years ago, Kabul's mayor, Mohammad Younus Nawandish, has been in the news. Among the many new projects he has launched includes the Kabul City Initiative (KCI), a USAID funded $120 million project that will see nine new parks being created across the capital. "Each of the new public parks will have proper playgrounds for different age groups, as well as spaces for volleyball, football and cricket," Nawandish says. The plan also aims at revitalising existing public spaces like Shahr-e-Nau Park, as well as the historic Bagh-e-Qazi in the old city.

One of Nawandish's biggest priorities on taking over the cash-strapped municipality was getting international donors to collaborate on his initiatives for public spaces. "Every child needs a proper place to play but nobody was thinking about it. Now we have created a relationship between Kabul municipality and donors, and have started work on this front." Nawandish has also launched pilot projects for street lighting and repairing pavements, to make the city safer and more accessible to families, as well as creating local bodies to help citizens participate in neighbourhood development schemes.

The projects have their share of sceptics, who point out that such mega-projects may look good for donors but are difficult to sustain. But the civil engineer-turned-politician's sense of purpose and energy has won him the respect of many Kabul residents. And by focusing on playgrounds, he has brought the issue of open spaces for children on the agenda.

One of the biggest projects he has planned is a "world garden" in the district of Khair Khana, funded by Turkish donors, over a sprawling area of 34 hectares, where different countries will be invited to create their own space. His vision, he says, is to change the face of Kabul within a year, to a "clean, green city, with happy and healthy children." That is something a lot of Kabulis will cheer for.

Price of recreation

When a new indoor football stadium started being built in his locality three years ago, Islam, like most of his neighbourhood boys, was happy. Islam lives in one of the new "townships" on the fringes of Kabul being developed by private builders. The stadium, with a large playing space and changing rooms, and a smaller warm-up area, was created by the local developer and reportedly handed over to the government. The management says they hire it from the government for a fixed monthly rent. It was free to use, says Islam, until about nine months ago, when the management started charging a tariff. The price for use varies over the week. While a 90-minute game on weekdays costs 800 afghanis (Dh68), at peak times during weekends this shoots up to 1,500 afghanis.

"Since it was mostly empty during the week, the local schoolchildren asked that they be allowed to continue using it for free, but the management refused. I feel sad for them, because they live here but have to play on the streets," Islam says. The management in turn points out that they pay rent to the government for the stadium, that the fees are for its maintenance and that anyone can play for a lower price during the week.

What is clear from the stadium's jammed parking lot on weekends is the sheer demand for recreational spaces in the city, even if they come at a steep price. Players come from far-off neighbourhoods, many of them flaunting Aston Villa shirts and trendy haircuts, and fancy footwear. But not all are from affluent backgrounds.

Ali Hamraz works in a factory stitching uniforms for the Afghan National Army and comes here on weekends to play with his colleagues. His boss pays for their time. "I used to coach my own child's team in Iran," Hamraz says. "It's sad to see children in my country playing in the dust." Others, such as Mohammad Jawad, divides the cost with his teammates. "It's worth it," he says. "It's the only time in the week when I can relax." If he couldn't afford the fees, he says, "I would go back to playing on the streets. But it would be better if places like this were free, so all children could enjoy them."

Taran N. Khan is a writer based in Mumbai.