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Luxury hotel among new Kabul buildings - AFGHANISTAN OPENS LUXURIOUS SERENA HOTEL - 2005-11-08

Tuesday, 2005, November 8

Insurgent violence wracks the countryside, but a building boom fueled by international aid, profits from the opium trade and foreign investment is remaking Afghanistan's dusty capital. The city even got its first five-star hotel Tuesday.
Four years after the Taliban's ouster, a shiny new office building rises amid Kabul's traditional mud-colored buildings, and there is a glitzy shopping mall boasting the country's only escalators. A bright U.S. Embassy is nearly ready, and suburbs of new homes are springing up.

But this city of 4 million people is far from being a metropolis.

It has electricity for only a few hours a day. The vast majority of its residents are poor, living in single-room, mud-brick houses and drawing water from wells that are sometimes polluted with cholera.

Militants occasionally fire rockets into downtown, and the threat of kidnapping forces many foreigners to live in tightly guarded compounds ringed by concrete bomb barriers and to travel in armored convoys.

Still, change is evident across the city as workers clear away the rubble of buildings and houses wrecked during a quarter-century of war.

The Kabul Serena luxury hotel was one of the most high-profile projects. Its opening drew President Hamid Karzai, ambassadors, foreign aid workers and others as well as the building's sponsor, the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of 20 million Ismaili Muslims around the world.

The hotel is 'an important milestone in Afghanistan's reconstruction and its re-engagement with the world community,' said the Aga Khan, whose philanthropic organization, the Aga Khan Development Network, built and operates the hotel.

Its 177 rooms rent for $250 to $1,200 a night - a fortune in a city where a government worker earns $50 a month. But the hotel also is providing jobs for 360 Afghans, 20 percent of whom are women, and the Aga Khan said it will help promote economic growth and international tourism.

With its large swimming pool, health club, pastry shop, two restaurants and neat mustard-colored exterior, the hotel contrasts sharply with its surroundings.

Crippled men compete with ragged street children on the pavement outside to beg for change from passing cars.

About 300 yards away is the Murad Khani slum, where thousands live in flimsy shacks next to open sewers.

'A lot of money is going into the big construction projects like hotels and shopping malls, but not enough money is going into projects for the poor, like housing and services,' said Anna Cestari, an official with Habitat, the U.N. agency for urban development.

A short distance from the Serena, a new U.S. Embassy and an adjoining apartment building for its staff are getting the finishing touches, their yellow and orange paint scheme providing a bright scene in an otherwise drab neighborhood.

Since 2001, the mission has been operating mainly out of modified shipping containers, and staffers often have had to bunk together in small rooms and work in cramped offices.

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