Meet Kabul's self-appointed traffic guru
A psychologically troubled wanderer or a service to society? In the congested 13th district, a self-appointed traffic officer raises praise as well as controversy.
It is the rush hour in Kabul’s 13th district, home to nearly a million people, and the roads are crammed with commuters. Vendors encroach from both sides of the busy thoroughfare, and a single second of hesitation by a driver disrupts the flow of thousands more vehicles. Traffic police is rarely seen, so drivers are relieved to spot a uniformed man hop off the back of a green police truck and into the vortex of automobiles. But this traffic controller is no ordinary official. In fact, Esmat isn’t official at all.
Off the radar
Esmat, who is about 35 and goes only by his first name, is not employed by any government department, nor does he receive a salary. Drivers pay him between two to five afghani as tips for unclogging traffic, which earns Esmat between 20 and 30 afghani (less than 1 US dollar) per day.
"Esmat does this job out of his own desire. He is not one of our officers," says Brigadier General Assadullah, head of Kabul's traffic police department. “We have not provided him with the uniform. Maybe he bought it, or a police officer might have given him his old uniform.”
Esmat says he purchased his own uniform, as well as the whistle he wears around his neck, of his own accord. His main tool, though, is a nail with which he threatens to puncture the tires of traffic offenders.
The nail is what gives Esmat his authority, although he rarely, if ever, actually uses it. Many drivers ignore the self-appointed traffic conductor’s verbal warnings and whistles, but most of the time, when Esmat shows his nail to drivers, they move on. His unorthodox methods have not been welcomed by the head of Kabul’s traffic police, who claims that Esmat suffers from mental health issues and is unable to direct traffic effectively.
“An officer should be able to assess situations and subsequently judge who violated the rules. But Esmat is not able to do this job," says General Assadullah. "All he does is guide traffic and ask the drivers to move when they stop at the crossroad.”
Many who use the 13th district’s chaotic roads disagree, and argue that Esmat’s presence helps traffic circulate.
“Although he is crazy and disabled, he chose to serve his people,” says Shah Wali, an Afghan National Police (ANP) officer who works in the area. “If he were not in the Tank-e-Tel area, the traffic would be much heavier.”
Those stuck in the 13th district’s gridlock traffic seem to appreciate Esmat’s services.
“This poor man is mentally ill, but does great service for his people. This road is narrow and if a vehicle illegally stops for one minute, tens of cars will have to stop. There is a large population in this area, but the road is very narrow. When Esmat is around, he gives directions to drivers and avoids heavy traffic around here,” says Abdul Hussein, a minibus driver.
Esmat has been directing traffic in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. His mental and physical health have evidently deteriorated over the years, a fact confirmed by Akbar, his roommate. “Esmat is crazy but everybody knows him,” Akbar says.
Another 13th district resident remembers the time eight years ago when Esmat was rushed to hospital. “I took Esmat to the Red Cross Hospital after he was hit by a car here and his foot was broken,” recalls Mohammad Zaher, a taxi driver in the 13th district. Esmat’s brother was killed in a suicide attack in Kabul two years ago. Both his mother and father are in poor health and unable to work.
Nonetheless, every morning at 9 am Esmat stands in the daunting traffic, brandishing his nail amid thousands of commuters. Some ignore him, others who follow his instructions. The debate on whether Esmat helps or hinders the flow is ongoing. Esmat, for his part, says the civic calling continues to motivate him. “I want to serve my people,” he says.
This report was prepared by Afghanistan-today.
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