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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kabul Net Cafe Seeks Computers

KABUL, Afghanistan -- When Kabul University found out it was getting a high-profile donation, it did what any major university would do: It organized a ribbon-cutting and called a news conference.

But in Kabul, a city slowly clawing its way back to normal life after a generation of war and political upheaval, sometimes it's best not to speak out too soon.

On Saturday, when a pack of about 40 journalists and diplomatic and university officials hoarded into the main library for the grand opening of an Internet cafe there, the only thing missing were the computers. And the electricity. With the group jammed in a dim room, officials showed off the seven brand-new desks where the computers will sit, and even did a ceremonial opening of the one box they had -- a printer.

Despite rumors of problems with the satellite phones and generators that will power the cafe, the United Nations officials sponsoring the project promised that all was well and that the computers -- which will be the only ones at the school -- would be delivered from Pakistan and running soon. For the library, basic problems aren't unfamiliar; after all, one-third of the books there were donated by the United States and are in English, which the vast majority of students can't read.

With clean, tree-lined paths and women with their heads uncovered reading in fields of flowers, the Kabul University campus is an oasis of relative prosperity in a city of bombed-out buildings and beggars. But the library's woes show that even Afghanistan's elite go without.

Take the job of Momina Dingar, a librarian. Thrilled to have returned to her job after five years when the Taliban wouldn't let women work, the 52-year-old acknowledges that most students can't read the books in her section, called "The American Corner."

Stacked neatly on row after row of green shelving, most of the books still have the cards in them with stamps from the 1970s and 1980s. The collection is random, including a book on Arizona's flowers and another about country music.

"The students usually use translated guides from their professors," she said.

Even the section about Afghanistan, whose books are in the local languages of Dari and Pashto, is patchy. The Taliban removed many history books they didn't like, and the new, interim administration purged old Russian and Arabic texts that were filled with damaging "old ideologies," Higher Education Minister Sherief Fayez said recently.

Trying to get the library online is a challenge. While the building is one of the few on campus that has electricity, the generators don't always work. Like most parts of Kabul, this neighborhood in the city's east doesn't have telephone lines; the area around the university was actually on the front lines of fighting between the Taliban and the northern alliance.

But UN officials who are building the Internet cafe with a $100,000 grant from the Japanese government are hopeful they will be able to keep the facility online by connecting through satellite phones on the roof. In addition to the seven computers at the university for students and staff, the Education Ministry will soon be opening another computer lab with 25 computers, said Martin Hadlow, director of the Afghan office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"This isn't rocket science," said Hadlow, bristling at the suggestion that Saturday's "opening" was a bad omen.

Once the cafe does open, most students and staff still have to learn how to use computers and the Internet.

On Saturday, two professors laughed at the idea that they had ever been on the web. Dr. Noor Mohamed Niaz, a microbiology professor, said he did get some computer training in 1973 in Beirut. "But now I see these computers are completely different and I have to start again."

Hurdles aside, the professor said, even the possibility of the Internet cafe is a boon. "It's nice because most people here don't have any channels to the outside world," he said. "I consider it a positive step."