When the Taliban regime fell in December of 2001, I rushed down from northern Afghanistan into Kabul with a handful of other journalists to report its demise. We hadn't expected the fighting to end so soon.
We scurried across the capital, gathering stories about the Taliban’s defeat and retreat while witnessing a return to normalcy. We saw women outside their homes. We heard music on street corners. And we listened to tales of repression, oppression, and executions. These stories filled our notepads, microphones, and videocassettes.
But the story that captured the imagination of my American audience had little to do with all of that. It was a story about an enduring lion in the Kabul Zoo.
It started like this:
Though his roar is more of a yawn these days, it was not so long ago when this lion, Marjan, used to be the king of Kabul’s urban jungle. A mujahedeen fighter who had survived combat with the Soviet Red Army was not so lucky when he jumped into the lion’s den to tease the beast. Marjan promptly ate him.
“The next day,” says zookeeper Sheraq Omar, “The man’s angry brother threw a hand grenade into the cage. When Marjan pounced on it, thinking it was food, he lost one eye and 95 percent of his sight in the other.”
The tale of Marjan the lion became an entry point for many Americans in understanding the larger story of Afghanistan. It was a narrative of war, hardship, and survival presented through a battle-scarred symbol of the Afghan people, their outlast-them-all, last-cat-standing, grenade munching, mujahideen-eating Marjan.
Marjan had been a gift from Germany in the late 60s during the more peaceful era of the Afghan monarchy. Prince Nader was in charge of the zoo back then. Its creation was a rung on the national climb to modernity.
But the onslaught of war brought hardships for Marjan and many of the other animals. While they survived the Soviet invasion, the zoo ended up on the front lines of Afghanistan’s civil war in 1992. The animals that didn’t die of starvation ended up on the dinner plates of hungry fighters. A sadistic mujahideen reportedly killed an elephant with an RPG.
When the Taliban came to power, they initially shored up the zoo, rebuilding its outer walls, but as time passed and money became scarce for the regime, there were calls to shut it down.
Sheraq Omar, the tenacious zookeeper at the time, fought back. He told me then that he went to the faculty of Islamic studies at the University of Kabul and had them write down every animal reference in the Koran connected to the Prophet Mohammed.
“I collected them all and presented them to the Ministry of Justice,” said Omar back in 2001.
Faced with evidence that the Prophet himself may have kept pets, the Taliban allowed Omar to keep the zoo open. But when the regime finally fell, the zoo also teetered on collapse. The buildings had been bombed, the staff had not been paid for months, the animals' food was running out, and their cages were not prepared for the winter. The 450 species of mammals, reptiles, and fish once housed here had dwindled to only about a dozen. But the zoo's most famous occupant still survived—Marjan.
The Zoo's current director, Aziz Gul Saqib.
Inspired by the indomitable spirits of both the man and the lion, the North Carolina Zoo came to the rescue. Initially hoping to put together $30,000 to help the Kabul Zoo, they eventually raised more than ten times that amount with the help of donations from around the world. The Americans also helped the Afghans care for the animals, educate the staff, and craft a business plan.
It was a lifeline that has allowed the Kabul Zoo to survive and even thrive in the years since. While the institution is still modest by the standards of most big-city zoos, Aziz Gul Saqib, the zoo’s director for the last nine years claims they are back up to 100 species of animals and had more than 650,000 visitors last year, making the zoo not just one of the most popular attractions in Kabul, but also profitable.
According to Saqib, the zoo took in 15 million Afghanis in revenue last year ($268,576 ) against 7.5 million in costs. Though those numbers have not been independently verified, if they're correct, it would seem that the zoo is one of the more efficient government-run entities in Afghanistan.
Saqib has also guided the zoo into professional organizations that should help in its evolution, like the South Asian Zoo Association, which provides vital certifications for worldwide standards of professionalism. With the help of outside donors, he’s installed a zoo-wide security system with dozens of cameras and audio speakers directed at the enclosures with recorded messages reminding guests not to feed or tease the animals (a problem in the past here). He’s also instituted an education program that reached 30,000 students last year, teaching them about endangered species and conservation with multimedia presentations in a renovated zoo auditorium.
But beyond the education and exhibits, the Kabul Zoo provides a peaceful escape for many Afghans, from the fears and worries of the war that still play out so close to it’s walls. Here families can enjoy picnics and young sweethearts can walk and talk together, free momentarily from prying eyes and wagging tongues.
Things seem to be going so well, in fact, that the Mayor of Kabul, Mohammed Younas Nawandish, a man on a perpetual, city-wide building spree, wants to expand the zoo five times larger and fill it with more exotic animals.
But experts, including one of the Kabul Zoo’s biggest supporters, David Jones, Director of the North Carolina Zoo, feel the expansion would be unsustainable, especially in light of Afghanistan’s uncertain political future.
Whatever does happen, however, one zoo fixture will be missing—Marjan. The lion died in 2002, after surviving three decades of war and upheaval. While Marjan is buried in a flower garden in the rear of the zoo, a bronze statue of the cat—another gift of the North Carolina Zoo—greets entering visitors, many who pet the statue or pose for photographs beside it.
Just a day after Marjan died, China donated two new African lions to the zoo, male and female, but zoo director Saqib said the male died of cancer last year and the female doesn’t seem to be a huge tourist draw in the years since.
But reality will likely always come up short against the myth of Marjan. One year from now, as international coalition troops withdraw leaving Afghan security forces in charge and the possibility of more violence and political upheaval, will the nation’s beloved symbol of survival still be as potent as just a legend cast in bronze?
All video, text, and photos by Kevin Sites.
Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement.” Kevin is currently traveling through Afghanistan covering the tumultuous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep coming back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.
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