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In the Talibanized Kabul Zoo, children’s smiles, ice cream cones… and Kalashnikovs – Afghanistan: the return of the Taliban to power


In the Kabul zoo, children stamp their feet at the sight of wild animals, begging their parents for ice cream, just like in any other zoo in the world. One element calls out, however: in the midst of families, the Taliban stroll, assault rifles on their shoulders. Eager for selfies, the fighters stroll peacefully after Friday prayers, the most important of the week. After years of bitter fighting in the Afghan countryside, this is the first time many of them have visited a city, let alone a zoo.

As large families settle down to picnic on the shady grounds, enjoying packed lunches, ice cream or salt pomegranate seeds, a treat particularly appreciated in Afghanistan, Taliban armed with Kalashnikov and M16 assault rifles monitor the enclosures.

(Bulent Kilic / AFP)

The relative tranquility of the place suddenly fades, when one of them grabs a deer by its antlers, triggering the hilarity of his friends. Further on, six men from the Intelligence Directorate – dressed in military fatigues, combat straps filled with ammunition and steel handcuffs, peaked caps and knee pads – stand together for a team photo with a mullah turbaned.

Their photographer, equipped with a telephoto lens, coordinates the shooting, then scrupulously examined by the group. One of the Islamists, whose charger is adorned with a Taliban flag, nods his approval with a thumbs-up. Later, other armed men hand their guns to boys as young as 8 years old. Then they immortalize the moment with their cell phones.

Omnipresence of firearms

The dozens of armed fighters are a kind of attraction, regardless of the animals. Many, however, are unarmed. They wear traditional hats, turbans and shawls. Some have their eyes outlined in kohl, a makeup that is not unusual for Afghan men.

But the main attraction of the Kabul zoo remains its lion, soberly called “The White Lion”, which sleeps in an enclosure. “The white lion” replaced the male Marjan, the former glory of the place, who died in 2002. A bronze statue of the big feline greets visitors on their arrival. A plaque on his grave reads: “Here lies Marjan, who was about 23 years old. He was the most famous lion in the world ”.

The aquarium and the reptile house are also very popular. Women in burqas, niqabs or simply covered with a veil guide their offspring there. A python is coiled in a large glass structure, while goldfish, catfish and turtles swim in aquariums.

“I really like animals, especially those found in our country,” said Abdul Qadir, 40, who works for the anti-terrorism department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. “I really like lions,” continues the Taliban, who came with a group of friends – all men. Asked about the omnipresence of firearms in the zoo, inconceivable elsewhere on the planet, Abdul Qadir underlines that his movement was in favor of their ban so that “children or women are not afraid”. The instructions were obviously not heard.

“People don’t feel safe”

Samir, stuck in Kabul while waiting to return to London where he lives, walks to the zoo with his 6-year-old son Ahmad. The children have lived “very difficult times” since the Taliban took power in mid-August, he says. “They’ve never seen these things before.” “We didn’t expect them to come so quickly. It is quite peaceful in Kabul, but the problem is that given the way they act, people do not feel safe, ”continues Samir.

Nestled between steep hills and next to the Kabul River, entrance to the zoo costs 40 euro cents for Afghans. But some Taliban enter without paying, blatantly ignoring, for those who can read, the sign: “No weapons in the zoo.”