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Nelvin Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune
By Marcus Stern and Ahmad Shuja
Copley News Service

KABUL, Afghanistan - Kabul City Center, a glitzy new mall in the heart of this city of 2.5 million, is more performance art than reality.

Escalators carry shoppers between two levels of fashion boutiques and an electronics store offering iPods, Play Stations, laptops, digital cameras and flat-panel projection TVs.

Above the mall are five stories of hotel rooms sharing a high-speed wireless Internet connection. It even has a fitness center with sauna.

But the reality is very few residents of the capital have enough money to shop in the mall or stay in the hotel, where rates start at $200 a night. Its escalators, lights, sauna and wireless Internet connection wouldn't run more than five hours every second day if not for huge generators clattering 24/7 in the basement.

And don't bother taking your Visa, American Express or other credit cards to Afghanistan. The country's economy is entirely cash based.

Nonetheless, four years of peace have given the city time to rebuild after three decades of war. Homeowners, without assistance from the government, have rebuilt the middle-class neighborhood of Kot Sangi, which had been leveled by shelling during the 1992-1996 civil war. Downtown streets are choked with traffic.

But the city's recovery, like the country's, has been uneven.

In Sherpur, the super-rich are building mansions verging on palaces.

Meanwhile, a much larger number of Afghan squatters live in squalor in the shells of former government buildings, including one that once housed the embassy for the old Soviet Union.

Abdul Qayoom sits in the sun making wooden snow shovels. A cow moos, a rooster crows and a young child whimpers. Older children laugh as they play.

Abdul, who makes less than a dollar day, and his family share space in one of three abandoned government buildings clustered behind a fence. The Spartan complex is home to some 700 Afghan refugees who returned after the Taliban regime fell four years ago.

They were drawn back to Kabul by promises of homes and jobs, said Abdul. But the government abandoned them as well as the buildings, he said.

"We are disappointed," he added.

Abdul's house is a small mud-brick shanty without electricity that he shares with his family of eight. The building around the shanties is nothing but a concrete shell.

Abdul's children, wearing tattered clothes, play around him as he tells his story: He fled his native province of Samangan in the north when the civil war broke out in 1992. He migrated to several provinces before ending up in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

"We came here in the hopes of a better life," he said. "But you can see how we live."

Abdul and other returnees are scattered across Kabul in tents and houses made of tin, wood planks or mud. It has been three years since the government "dumped" them in abandoned buildings, as they say, promising aid and suitable shelter. They received two sacks of flour and a canister of cooking oil six months ago, Abdul said.

"The government just makes promises but doesn't fulfill them," he added.

Back at the Kabul City Center, a man with the single name of Saeedullah operates an electronics boutique called Sohrab Mobile Phones and Electronics.

He says most of his customers are foreigners and a small number of wealthy Afghans. Few others can afford to buy the products, which are priced higher here than in the United States.

Saeedullah thinks another large, modern shopping mall in Kabul is out of the question any time soon because average Afghans can't afford its prices.

A typical Afghan government employee makes $44 a month. An estimated 30 percent of Kabul's residents are unemployed and 37 percent rely on aid to meet their daily food needs.

Most of Kabul has no electricity. Parts that do have it get it every second day from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. For that reason, the best symbol of the new Kabul isn't the modern Kabul City Center. It is the ubiquitous generator.

Ahmad Shuja is a Copley News Service intern born in Kabul but currently living and going to school in Quetta, Pakistan.