By Kevin Sites - NBC NEWS
KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 23. Though his roar is more of
a yawn these days, it was not so long ago when this lion, Marjan, used
to be the king of Kabul's urban jungle. A mujahedeen fighter who had
survived combat with the Soviet Red Army was not so lucky when he jumped
into the lion's den to tease the beast. Marjan promptly ate him.
THE NEXT DAY, says zookeeper Sheragha Omar, "A family
member threw a hand grenade into the cage. When Marjan pounced on it
thinking it was food, he lost one eye and 95 percent of his sight in the
But Marjan is not the only casualty in Afghanistan's
unending wars and civil strife.
During the vicious factional power fights from 1992 to
1995, a sadistic soldier killed the Zoo's elephant with a
rocket-propelled grenade. Other animals were turned into meals for
An Afghan bear paces in his cage. His snout is red, raw
and swollen. Zoo officials say Taliban visitors would tease the bear by
holding out food, then smacked him on the nose with sticks when he
reached for it.
THE KORAN'S ANIMALS
In a place that used to have 39 species of animals. Now there are just
17. The only reason it is still open at all is because of zookeeper
Omar, who like Marjan, doesn't give up very easily. When the repressive
Taliban regime wanted to shut the zoo down, Omar fought back. He went to
the faculty of Islamic studies at the University of Kabul.
"They wrote down everything in the Koran that referred
to animals and the prophet Mohammed," says Omar. "I collected them all
and presented them to the ministry of justice."
Faced with evidence that the Prophet indeed kept pets,
the Taliban allowed Omar to keep the zoo open. Despite the zoo's sorry
state, crumbling infrastructure and malnourished animals, attendance is
up. And since the Taliban fled the capital, the number of visitors to
the zoo has doubled to 200 a day.
Mohammed Rafi, an unemployed 18-year-old, comes here
every week to pass the time. He says Marjan, the one-eyed lion, is still
his favorite draw.
"It's stronger than any other animal in the world," says
Rafi. "Yes, it's the king of animals in the world."
KING OF THE BEASTS
But this king, like the other animals here, still faces
an uncertain future.
There's very little food to feed the animals, the zoo's
staff of eleven haven't been paid since July, and with cold weather
approaching there's no money left to prepare the animals' cages for
Omar says the Northern Alliance is providing some food
and medicine for the zoo, but it's not enough. Still, despite the
difficulties, he loves Marjan and all the animals too much to give up
now. He says he will keep up the fight as long as Marjan does, living up
to the words posted on a sign outside the zoo, "God created animals.
People must be good to them."
Go on to Barbaric
Animal Pound in Gatesville, Texas
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