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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tending Shop in a War Zone

KABUL, Afghanistan -- A dove nests in one of his satellite dishes and an artillery barrage forced his new business to close for several days, but Gunter Eikhof insists war-shattered Kabul's first private telephone service will turn a profit. The Kabul office of his German-based Hanseatische Computer Vertriebs GmbH is housed in the Afghan capital's largest building, once used to house the ministry of communications. A few hundreds meters from the front line, it is little more than a shell, its windows shattered by two years of civil war. But Eikhof's office, the only private Western firm in Kabul, has so far survived the rocket and artillery attacks that rain down daily on Kabul. The satellite dishes that provide a telephone link between Kabul and the rest of the world are perched on the building's roof. Asked why he opened an office at the center of a bloody battle for power which has killed 12,000 people in two years, Eikhof rolled his eyes in mock despair. He had just set up his equipment during a long lull in the fighting when, last Jan. 1, Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar launched a blistering rocket and artillery assault on Kabul in his latest attempt to topple arch-rival President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Shrapnel hit an antenna and damaged the power supply, delaying his office's opening, Eikhof said. "I saw the beginning of the fighting and hopefully I am now seeing the end of it," he said. The fighting has eased recently to sporadic, but daily, rocket and artillery attacks. Eikhof first expanded his German communications and computer business into Russia in 1991, setting up a telephone service near Moscow. He and Afghan friend Yusuf Tarim later saw an opportunity in Kabul and joined forces last year. "We were talking in Germany and it occurred to us it would be an extremely useful service to do in Afghanistan so we decided to set up a communications system," Eikhof said. He signed an agreement with Communications Minister Fauzi Wahim last August. Tarim, a German resident for 14 years, became general manager of the Kabul office. The first telephone call was not made until early this month but since then business has boomed, Tarim said. The office now has about 30 customers a day and an average call length of 4.5 minutes. "My break-even rate is 1,000 minutes a day and after that I will start making a profit," Eikhof said, adding that he hoped to recover his initial $1 million investment within two years -- though the shelling and delays have so far cost him an extra $200,000. Eikhof, who also provides facsimile and computer mail services, said he offers a relatively low telephone charge of $2.70 a minute, despite the difficulties. Elsewhere most satellite telephone calls cost well over $15 a minute. "The reason (the price) is so low is so that people can afford it," Eikhof said. He declined to say how much he paid to subscribe to the satellite system. His communications system is limited because only two of his three satellite dishes are operable. A dove has made its nest in the third. "I am waiting for its eggs to hatch," he said.