A bear stares from an enclosure at the Kabul Zoo, which has been ravaged by… (Tony Perry / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — At the Kabul Zoo, even the empty enclosures are a draw: They're quiet.
Off a busy street leading to the city's commercial center, the zoo is no longer the city's pride, but it does provide a refuge from the traffic, noise and chaos of the Afghan capital.
Parents bring children here to walk amid the tall trees and gaze at the animals -- even the empty enclosures. Women in pale blue burkas stroll the grounds.
"In the Muslim world especially, a place where women and children can gather safely as a family with or without their menfolk is important," said David Jones, director of the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, which is offering support to the zoo, on the banks of the winding Kabul River.
Built in 1967, the zoo, with research facilities and tourist attractions, was part of a push by Afghanistan to emerge as a modern state. But decades of war have ravaged the zoo.
The stories of neglect are legend: Soviet soldiers shooting the animals for sport. Taliban fighters using the zoo as a bivouac and killing some of the deer and rabbits for food. The Taliban command trying to close the zoo, saying nothing in the Koran sanctions the keeping of animals.
Two elephants and a zebra were reportedly killed in a gun fight between mujahedin factions. A mortar round destroyed the parrot exhibit.
Marjan, an aging lion who was the zoo's top attraction, was blinded in one eye by a grenade attack. He died in 2002. (The official cause was kidney and liver ailments, but people say his heart was broken by the zoo's sad decline.)
China donated two lions to replace Marjan. They spend their listless days in a weed-choked grotto with a dry moat. On a recent chilly day, the lions were largely ignored as the few visitors preferred to regard the ibex, the gazelle and chattering macaques.
The zoo's director, Aziz Gul Saqeb, said war and the harshness of life for all but the wealthy and powerful have sapped the population's normal affinity for animals.
"The conflict destroyed the feeling of the Afghan people for the survival of the animals," he said.
Since the U.S. invasion in late 2001, the zoo has begun the road to recovery, but it is a long one, hampered by Afghan bureaucracy and a lack of money.
The U.N.-sponsored World Society for the Protection of Animals, the U.S.-based Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, and the North Carolina Zoo have raised money and provided food, medicine and veterinary care.
Without international help, the zoo cannot meet even the minimal standards for the upkeep of animals, Saqeb said. But money is tight these days for international wildlife groups, and security problems make it difficult to get volunteers to come to Kabul.
The zoo once had more than 500 animals, and in 1972 attendance was 150,000. Now the zoo has about 280 animals, including 45 birds, Saqeb said, although a visit to the zoo suggests that number is exaggerated. Attendance has plummeted even though the city's population has increased.
Jones, former director of the London Zoological Society, said his zoo is still involved in trying to bring the Kabul facility back to respectability. His zoo is helping to send Kabul Zoo staff to India for training, using the last of the $500,000 that the zoo raised.
Even in its woeful state, the Kabul Zoo serves a kind of purpose, one in common with other zoos in Asia and the Middle East, Jones said in an e-mail: providing a bit of public open space in an increasingly crowded city.
Mohammad Jan, taking two of his sons and three other children from his extended family to the zoo recently, agreed.
"The zoo is a place of calm," he said.
Special correspondent Karim Sharifi contributed to this report.