Without an address system and despite the very real threat of attack by the Taliban and Daesh fighters, Afghanistan's postal workers are determined to continue serving the country.
Every morning for the last 27 years, Ahmad Zaki has gone to work without fail; come rain, sunshine, or the years of war that have plagued his country, Afghanistan.
Zaki joined the Afghan postal service - or Afghan Post - right after high school and has worked out of the Central Post Office in the Afghan capital of Kabul since.
“Sometimes, we would be out delivering post and there would be rockets and bullets flying over our heads,” said Zaki, recalling his days working as a postman during the Afghan Civil War in the 1990s.
“We had to take shelter until the crossfire ended, and then we would continue our work.”
Zaki, who is roughly 45, is one of a handful of employees who stayed in the service of Afghan Post despite the myriad wars and regimes his country has experienced - keeping the rusted wheels of the country’s waning postal service churning along, albeit slowly.
As the rest of the world fondly reminisces about the golden age of writing letters and postcards with colourful stamps, for the employees of Afghan Post, there is not the same appetite for nostalgia, given their memories of the recent past.
During a quick break from work, Zaki spoke to TRT World at the Central Post Office, located in a busy market area in the heart of the capital. He describes the hardships, pitfalls, and attempts to rejuvenate an institution he has dedicated his life to.
“The civil war hurt the postal services the most,” he said, continuing: “But the Taliban regime that followed later did not do anything to develop Afghan Post.”
“It was so unorganised that if you came to the post office, you would see the employees lying on toushaks (traditional Afghan floor mattresses) with a glass of green tea.”
Capturing history through stamps
Afghan Post was established in 1878 by Afghanistan’s then ruler, Emir Sher Ali Khan, and was accepted into the Universal Postal Union in 1928.
Up until the conflicts that have plagued the country for the last three decades, the organisation was known for its reliability in connecting the country to the wider world, despite changing regimes and rulers.
“You can trace the history of my country through the stamps we have catalogued here,” said 27-year-old Noor Rahman who has been working in the Central Post Office for the last five years, managing stamp sales.
Rahman opens a large, thick, faded brown cardboard folder that holds thousands of stamps that have been issued over the years. Some honour the country’s many kings and leaders, others mark important days, and some provide a glimpse into Afghanistan’s past glories.
“I love my job because it allows me learn and share little pieces of Afghanistan’s history and culture,” Rahman told TRT World while showing off a copy of the first stamp ever issued by Afghan Post.
The gold coloured stamp has a black seal featuring a lion, or Sher, a tribute to the country’s former leader, Sher Ali Khan.
Next to it is a red coloured-stamp featuring the Bolshevik founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, a souvenir from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Many employees credit the Russians with doing the most to develop the postal services. The stamps and other memorabilia are displayed in a small museum housed in a Soviet-era building that is part of the central post office.
“The museum was first created by the Russians, but it remained untouched by the wars and regimes that followed,” Rahman said, adding:
“Even the Taliban who dislike the use of stamps honouring past leaders and displaying faces, especially of women, did not think to destroy it.”
Rahman went on to show stamps created during the Taliban regime featuring verses from the Quran and the Holy Kaabah in the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
Keeping up with the times
The Taliban, who were known for their extremist interpretation of religion, had a history of destroying artefacts they deemed not Islamic. During their rule, they destroyed several historical artefacts including the Buddhas of Bamiyan and other relics stored at the Kabul museum.
The influx of foreign aid that followed the fall of the Taliban did help Afghanistan recover economically to an extent from years of conflicts, internal and imposed.
However, there was little left in terms of public services and bureaucratic systems.
Additionally, with 63 percent of the country under 25 years old, newer, affordable and easier means of communication, such as mobile phones and the internet, became popular among the country’s young population.
Reviving older forms of communication, such as the postal service, became less of a priority over developing critical infrastructure. As a result Afghan Post was neglected for years, operating in the status quo established during the Soviet-backed rule of the 1980s.
Potential for growth
But that didn’t deter Ahmad Wahid Wais, when he took charge of Afghan Post in 2014.
“I saw a lot of potential in Afghan Post and wanted to not only revive the service but also combine it with innovative new technologies,” he told TRT World.
With state investment of $700,000 - a relatively modest amount compared to funding for other government services—Wais drew up a plan to modernise delivery and other services.
He also planned to expand its remit to include newer services beyond simple postal and package deliveries.
They have undertaken several projects, including online postal tracking in a bid to modernise Afghan Post, which falls under the purview of the Afghan Ministry of Communication and IT.
“We have started Express Mail Service, electronic post box services, government logistics, and passport deliveries, and have also connected most post offices with the fiber optic network. This is only one phase of the initiative, and we are hoping to start more services like supporting e-commerce businesses and are also launching postal payment services by next year,” Wais explained.
He further acknowledged that decades of war had deeply affected the culture of the country in different ways.
“The conflict of the last three decades has affected the postal culture of the country and Afghans are no longer used to sending letters or using the postal services,” he said
“If someone from Kabul wants to send a package to Kandahar, he is more likely to go to the taxi stand and pay a taxi driver going that way to carry his parcel, rather than come to the post office,” he added, referring to the informal courier services offered by taxi drivers who travel across the country.
“But we are hoping to change that and to bring more Afghans back to the post office. It will help the government generate revenue and also create more jobs,” he insisted.
However, a major problem facing Wais is the lack of an address system in Afghanistan, even in the relatively developed metropolitan capital of Kabul.
Nevertheless, Wais has faith in postmen like Zaki, who know the city like the back of their hand.
“Our postmen, especially in Kabul, are very adept at finding their way across the city and locating even the most remote addresses. We hardly ever have issues with delivering letters, packages,” he said.
But competitive technology and inadequate logistics is not the only challenge that Wais and his team face. The government also faces threats of increasing violence from a resurgent Taliban and a fast growing Daesh insurgency.
Afghan Post finds itself at the frontline of the conflict.
A Daesh attack on the compound they share with the Ministry of Communication and IT on April 20 resulted in the death of five employees and several injuries, while also damaging part of the post office.
Just a week prior to the attack, Wais along with Shahzad Aryubi, the Minister of Communication and IT, had inaugurated the first phase of the digitised post office. “The attack completely destroyed the operating network of the postal offices, forcing us to shut services for months. But the loss of our colleagues’ lives was the most difficult,” he said.
“We lost some very close colleagues and it is hard to come to terms with that,” he added, choking up at the memory of a close colleague he lost in the attack.
Holia Sharifi, who has been working with the Afghan Post for the last 18-years, was on duty in the front office of the Central Post Office during the attack. “I was injured during the attack. We were locked here listening to the gunshots and explosions for hours. We didn’t think we would survive,” she said.
Sharifi, known for her outgoing and friendly personality, has still not fully recovered from the trauma of the attack. She jumped at a loud noise while talking to TRT World.
“I panic a lot these days,” she said with a nervous laughter.
Today, postal services are mostly used for government dispatches. There are many Afghans who use Afghan Post for parcel delivery and while letters, postcards, and other communiques are rarer, they are not entirely obsolete.
For Afghans postal services helpt to stay in touch with the large Afghan diaspora, many of whom fled war and conflict.
“I love my job because it help me connect people,” said Sharifi
“The satisfaction of watching someone feel joyful at receiving a package from a loved one thousands of miles away, is just worth it.”