KEEPING THE AFGHANS POSTED: Postman Shah Mohammad in front of the Barikot Post Office where he works in Kabul.
In a city riddled by a constant fear of attacks, anonymity is highly prized. Most walls
are high and very few houses have names of tenants on the door. And yet, as Subel
Bhandari and Najeebullah Hazem find out, a phone number may do the trick!
It took Graeme Smith two years to receive a letter from his employer in Brussels welcoming him to a new job in Afghanistan.
“Some say that the mail arrives quickly. I think that this letter was lost,” says Smith, a political analyst for the International Crisis Group who started work at the Kabul office in 2012.
In Kabul, there are no postal codes. A project to set up such a system by the Afghan Post, a member of the Universal Postal Union since 1928, has been stalled because the city’s streets are still mostly nameless.
Most of the hundreds of thousands of homes have no house numbers either.
Aid money for development and reconstruction is supposed to fund such advances, but a multi-million-dollar effort by the municipality of Kabul to name the streets and allot house numbers is moving at only a snail’s pace.
At the Barikot Post Office in the Deh Mazang area of western Kabul, four people sift through thousands of mails each month. The site is one of the 25 branch offices of the Afghan Post in Kabul.
The office chief directs three postmen who deliver about 1,300 letters and parcels every day in Police Districts 7 and 3.
One of them is Shah Mohammad, 36, who has been a roundsman every day for the past 16 years, even on his wedding day.
Sometimes it takes him a couple of hours to deliver just one letter.
“The addresses are always vague. They write as if I know all of them personally,” he says.
Navigating the maze of the city is daunting in Kabul, with more than five million residents, a tenfold increase since 2001.
Thousands of buildings have gone up without proper permits, many of them on the land grabbed by local strongmen with political ties. Many houses on the hills don’t even have water or electricity supplied yet.
A few have the luck to have had their roads paved. These are mainly around the diplomatic enclave or where top officials live.
An effort in the Project Taimani neighbourhood to get locals to apply their own house numbers created more confusion than benefit, because residents adopted numbers of their own choice rather than follow a scheme.
If you ask a Kabul dweller to give their home address, they often describe a landmark, the colour of their gate or wall, and the direction in the lane from the left to the right.
The Barikot Post Office is a small house next to a busy road that often comes under Taliban attacks.
Inside a glass case, vintage postage stamps, some going back 60 years, are on display.
Post-office boxes are available with numbers from 7,000 to 7,090.
Some of the locks are broken. A broken signboard lies on the floor, saying: Afghan Post, Fast and Safe. The 55-year-old office chief, Mohammad Farooq, who has been a postman for 36 years, says: “We used to have more customers sending letters.”
Like the rest of the world, Afghans increasingly use the Internet to communicate with each other. More than half of the letters carried are government correspondence between different ministries and departments.
For postmen like Mohammad, the lack of address makes the city tricky. But the post gets delivered. Most of the time.
He estimates around 30 per cent of the homes have some sort of address, but with his 16 years of experience, he knows every street and most houses in the area.
For some regulars he has developed his own code. Like House 24, a compound with a 5-metre-high wall and nothing visible from outside.
It has no number, but an electricity pole nearby has 24 written on it, that is why the compound has become House 24.
Mohammad says it belongs to a charity, though the addressee on the mail is a pharmaceuticals company. The private armed guards, thick metal doors and radio antennas all suggest it is neither, but perhaps a security or logistics company that does not welcome attention.
The House 24 was his third drop this morning. The day started with a delivery to an embassy guarded by anxious policemen. The second was a government department, where he was offered tea.
The most important piece of information in the address is the phone number, Shah says.
“You can write just the name of the recipient and Kabul, Afghanistan as the address. But if there is a phone number we will find the house.”
“Return to sender, address unknown,” happens to only a few letters each day. Those are the ones that don’t even contain a phone number.
In a city where there is constant fear of attacks, anonymity is highly prized.
Most walls are high and very few houses have tenants’ names on the door. Each time Mohammad, who has no uniform, goes to deliver the mail, he has to convince the person on the other side of the door that he is harmless.
Every day, Mohammad covers around 30 kilometres. He bought his own bicycle so he does not have to walk everywhere.
The cost of phone calls he makes to locate recipients come out of his own pocket and are not reimbursed. His monthly salary is 6,000 afghani (around 105 dollars).
“I like the work, not the pay,” says the father of six daughters. In Kabul, “our lives are in constant danger,” he says. Last month, two staff of the Afghan Post were killed in a Taliban attack in eastern Afghanistan.
Ahmad Wahid, the head of the Afghan Post, says that despite the dangers, letters and parcels will get delivered, even in Taliban-controlled area. Wahid would like the post office to become an independent government institution, instead of being a subordinate of the Ministry of Communications that devours most of the profits.
“We have no money for marketing. That’s why hardly anyone knows that one letter costs only 30 afghani, or about half a dollar, to send abroad, compared to more than US$80 through private courier services,” he says.Wahid adds that a letter from Kabul to Berlin can be delivered within three days now, thanks to a new agreement with the Turkish Airlines. — DPA
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