“You can’t put the blame on one side. Everybody has made some contributions to the misery.”
So thought Rafi Samizay, professor in the School of Architecture and Construction Management at Washington State University, as he stood in what is left of his high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. As he tried to chat cheerfully with students about favorite teachers they shared, the remains of the school teetered around them. Classes are still held in part of the building that was blown up, so students have to gingerly make their way across a second-story, narrow piece of concrete that falls off to nothing. Others walk below. Where there is no building, classes are held in tents on the floor slab.
To whom should he direct his anger? The Russians? Neighboring countries? The Americans? The Taliban?
“I was gone. Maybe I was responsible,” he says with a survivor guilt that few can begin to fathom.
Samizay swore he would never return to Afghanistan when, fearful for his life, he and his young family fled the country more than 20 years ago. As a Western-educated professor and former chair of the Department of Architecture at Kabul University, Samizay and others like him were highly unpopular with the Soviets when they invaded. He stayed as long as he could-until the feeling that death was imminent became overwhelming.
For years after he left, he had nightmares about being in Kabul.
Last fall, as the emotions within him raged, he returned to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
At the request of the minister of urban development and housing in Kabul, Samizay was there to lead a conference on rebuilding the city. Using e-mail and cell phones and with no funding source, he put together a conference with 40 presentations and 250 professionals from the U.S. and several other countries. Given the devastation of the city and the lack of funds, many of his colleagues thought the task would be impossible to pull off.
At the conference, the group tackled the biggest issues the city faces and worked to come up with recommendations. How does one preserve Kabul’s distinct heritage in the context of the annihilation of the past 20 years? They also addressed infrastructure needs of the city and housing issues. Homelessness and squatter settlements are a tremendous problem in Kabul. During the 20 years that Samizay was gone, the population of the city has increased from 750,000 to more than two million residents. The group also focused on planning and institutional development, including such things as who is going to pay for rebuilding, and what kind of organizational and institutional framework will work.
Samizay has begun working to secure funding on what he feels are some of the top priorities for rebuilding his country. His particular emphasis has been rebuilding Kabul University. He is working to develop a master plan for the university. His other projects include development of a building for the School of Architecture, housing for faculty on campus, and development of a student activity center on the campus.
The student activity center is an attempt to secularize the university, so students are able to have a life away from fanaticism-an impossible idea during the time of the Taliban.
Students in Samizay’s classes often think that the role of an architect is to design a project that someone else has thought of and prepared. He is quick to insist that their more important work is creating ideas first.
“After years of experiencing cruelty, people’s psyches are so scarred,” he said. “We need to create an atmosphere of hope and use buildings as catalysts to spark other ideas.”