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In Kabul’s Heart, Soviet Towers Harbor Decades of Tales | Press "Enter" to skip to content

In Kabul’s Heart, Soviet Towers Harbor Decades of Tales


KABUL, Afghanistan — The scars from four decades of war are etched into the boxy apartment towers known as Macroyan Kohna, a dreary neighborhood built by the Soviets in central Kabul a half-century ago as a testament to modernity.

Like other parts of the Afghan capital, Macroyan Kohna has been pummeled by rockets, mortar shells and car bombs since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began just over 40 years ago. But the leafy neighborhood of shrapnel-pocked apartments has been rebuilt and expanded several times over.

Macroyan, a corruption of the Russian word for “micro-complex,” offers a micro-history of Afghanistan’s four decades of war. Built for pro-Soviet Afghan elites, Macroyan Kohna today is a worn but vibrant neighborhood of middle- and upper-class Afghans who have reinvented it as a shabby chic refuge.

Yet among the original 1960s gray “Khrushchevka” buildings, emblems of violence are everywhere, some decades old and some as fresh as the latest car bomb.

There is the modest grave of an Afghan girl named Nahid, who residents say leapt to her death from an apartment window to escape a rape attempt by mujahedeen gunmen in 1993. Her grave is an informal shrine, decorated with tattered flags and banners and marked by a faded gray headstone.

Other makeshift graves around the complex were hastily dug in the early 1990s, when Macroyan Kohna was on the front lines of a brutal civil war between mujahedeen factions. Transporting the dead to a cemetery was perilous, so rocket attack victims were buried in gardens late at night.

The graves remain, some studded with small tombstones and others left unmarked. They are part of the district’s landscape, like the rose gardens and the drooping laundry lines strung between buildings and trees, or the plaintive cries of vendors hawking yogurt and grilled ears of corn.

There are also fresh shrapnel holes and shattered windows from a car bombing on Sept. 5, cited by President Trump as the reason he called off Afghan peace talks. An American soldier was among those killed nearby.

“We’ve been scarred by war for all these years, with barely time to breathe,” said Faroq Abdullah, an engineer who first moved into Macroyan Kohna in 1975, and whose apartment windows were blown out by the Sept. 5 bombing.

Mr. Abdullah, who is in his 70s, was granted his apartment by the Soviets, who had a strong presence in Afghanistan for many years before their 1979 military invasion. He had helped them install a central heating system — a rarity in Afghanistan — in 1968 in the first phase of Macroyan Kohna, or Old Macroyan.

Like many longtime residents, Mr. Abdullah has lost and regained his apartment more than once. He said the Afghan government confiscated the flat just before the Soviet invasion, when Mr. Abdullah was imprisoned for a year for “anti-revolutionary activities.”

The apartment was returned to him in 1981, he said. But it was looted by mujahedeen fighters in the early 1990s, when he and his family lived in the building’s basement to escape rocket attacks.

Many apartments were also seized or looted during the Taliban regime, from 1996 to 2001, he said. Some became offices of the feared Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which doled out public beatings for women who lacked veils, among other punishments.

Mr. Abdullah said he lived in dread that the Taliban would discover that he had worked for the Soviets — a crime punishable by jail or execution.

Today, Mr. Abdullah’s apartment is nearly bereft of furniture. He said he sold most of it to pay to replace windows shattered by the September car bomb.

Macroyan Kohna was jolted again on Nov. 24, when a bomb nearby killed an American worker for the United Nations.

For a brief period in the 1980s, Soviet technicians and advisers lived in 25 or 30 apartments in Macroyan Kohna, said Viacheslav Nekrasov, who directs the Russian cultural center in Kabul.

Mr. Nekrasov, 65, who briefly lived in a flat there in 1982, said the first apartments were considered ultramodern and luxurious — “a special presentation project” to promote Soviet expertise.

“A lot of rockets have hit Macroyan Kohna, but as you can see it is still standing strong,” Mr. Nekrasov said. “These are very solid homes.”

Since 1984, a fourth-floor apartment in Block 8 has been occupied off and on by Rena Baum, a Russian who married an Afghan student she met at a university in St. Petersburg in 1974. Ms. Baum, a silver-haired woman with striking blue eyes, waged a successful six-year court battle to reclaim the flat after it was occupied by squatters while she visited Russia.

She moved back into the flat in 2014 — the only Russian in Macroyan Kohna, she said. She works for the government-run Radio Afghanistan, translating news on the Russian-language service. She speaks fluent Dari, a version of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan.

Ms. Baum’s apartment block is hulking and charmless, and sometimes the electricity and water service fail. The flats are so small and dark that some Afghans call them “pigeon coops.”

Ms. Baum said she missed the Macroyan Kohna of the old days, when it was home solely to government ministers and professors. “Now there are a lot of uneducated people — they’re friendly, but I don’t really get to know them,” she said.

Wesal, 72, a retired army officer who goes by one name, has seen the complex expand through five phases since his father bought a flat in 1968. The latest iteration is Fifth Macroyan, a cluster of 18-story apartment towers now under construction, featuring balconies and large windows on a flat lot populated by clucking chickens.

Mr. Wesal said he reclaimed his father’s 1968 apartment after it was seized by mujahedeen fighters in the early 1990s. “Any memories I have of those days are dark and sad,” he said.

He said he was old enough to remember a time when Afghanistan was at peace.

“I’ve seen war and I’ve seen peace,” he said. “I prefer peace.”

Fahim Abed and Fatima Faizi contributed reporting.


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