Archive for Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Kabul keeps zoo running as matter of pride

November 21, 2001

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— Marjan the one-eyed lion gets his daily 25 pounds of flesh thanks to a trusting butcher. The caged rabbits eat cheap. All in all, Kabul's desperate little zoo is a wreck running on hope.

It is the perfect metaphor for Afghanistan's plight.

"We cannot let these animals die," said zoo director Sheragha Omar, a gentle man of short stature with a trim gray beard. "It is our Pashtun honor. We do not count up the cost. Our duty is to save them."

Omar's seven children are at the edge of hunger. He has not been paid his $20 monthly wage since July, yet he still finds a little cash to help out the destitute 11 people who work for him.

Warring factions long ago trashed the place, along with most of the city around it. Shells smashed the main building, shattering its fine old aquarium. Half the cage bars are twisted, with doors hanging open.

The Afghan bear is a nervous wreck. There is no money to treat the large open sore on its nose, which Omar says is the result of mindless Taliban visitors smacking him with sticks.

Marjan sits listless and lonely in the lion pit, hardly raising an eyebrow when Omar drops in for a visit.

"He is as old as I am," Omar laughs. Close enough. He is 48, and Marjan is 45. "The poor beast has no mate. He is aging fast. Mostly, he is traumatized from his brush with death."

During the roaring '90s, after the Russians left, an Afghan guerrilla showing off for his friends jumped over the guard rail into the den and teased the lion. Marjan ate him.

The next day, the guerrilla's brother applied the Afghans' strict code of revenge. He tossed a hand grenade at the lion. Marjan, expecting food, pounced on it. The blast put out his eye and nearly killed him.

On another black day, a different Afghan guerrilla amused himself by firing a rocket-propelled grenade at the elephant.

These days, the zoo's 37 species of animals are reduced to 19. They include some curious choices, including one unlabeled feline that looks like an ill-tempered house cat.

"We have hope," Omar said. "We used to get maybe 100 people a day, and now there are 200. People are no longer afraid to come out. We even have women now who open their burqa masks for a better look."

But his accounts tell a less optimistic story.

The zoo costs $6,000 a month to operate, and gate receipts come to $300. The hard-pressed city of Kabul, with hungry people in its streets, has other priorities.

Omar is doubtful that the chaotic northern alliance administration now governing Kabul will get around to funding the zoo. Soldiers don't even pay the nickel entry fee when they visit.

Promises from abroad buoy up his hopes. The Kenyan government said it would provide exotic animals in 10 years if the zoo, and Afghanistan, lasted that long. Zoo associations elsewhere offered some help.

The biggest item is Marjan's lunch tab, which approaches $14 a day, more than many Kabulis earn in a month. "The butcher says he trusts us to make good when we can."

Now, like Kabul and all of Afghanistan, Omar figures the future is in the hands of Allah.

"We are running on faith now," he said. "In the end, things will work out. God willing."

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