Kabul, Afghanistan – In northern Kabul, a mausoleum overlooks a sprawling cemetery on the dusty hills below it. The mausoleum belongs to Marshal Fahim, a former Northern Alliance commander; the graves to the countless victims of the four decades of war this country has endured.
The dirt road leading to this cemetery in Sarai Shamali is lined with shops that engage in an increasingly profitable business: coffin-making.
Not too long ago, there was only one shop that sold coffins here. But today, the coffin makers have not only taken over most of the shops here, they have spread out into other parts of the city, as well. Death is now such a frequent occurrence in Kabul that coffin-making is one of the few thriving businesses.
The demand for coffins reveals something about the nature of death in Afghanistan, for they are not typically used in Muslim funerals, where the dead are usually wrapped in a white funeral shroud and placed directly in the grave.
But when a body has been severely disfigured as a result of a bomb blast or an accident, simple wooden coffins are used.
Twenty-eight-year-old Abdullah Sultani has been in the coffin-making business since 2014.
“As the number of explosions has increased, so has the number of shops,” he says as, next door, some men put the finishing touches on a white coffin.
A seemingly endless stream of explosions keeps them busy.
“The situation makes me feel uncomfortable,” says Sultani, his eyes framed by dark circles. “But still, I’m here in this shop 24 hours a day to serve the people.”
After an attack on a Shia mosque in Kabul killed 28 people in August, Sultani had to make coffins for children.
“I sold seven coffins on that day,” he says. “All of them were for one family. The children, husband, wife … an entire family.”
He has two child-sized coffins leaning against the wall of his shop, waiting for the next attack to strike the weary streets of Kabul.
“I don’t feel good about this. But what can I do?” he asks, wiping sweat from his brow.
Once, a family brought a body to him that was in pieces, he recalls. “Even the family couldn’t recognise the body,” he says quietly.
“Every time I think about these things, I become depressed.”
On the other side of the city, next to the Kabul River, 29-year-old Samiullah sits in his small coffin shop, the air filled with the fumes of wood polish. Across the river is an amusement park.
A year ago, Samiullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, was deported back to Kabul from London, where he had sought asylum. Today, he sells coffins to the families of the victims of the insecurity he attempted to flee.
Samiullah studied law at university, but was unable to find a job in his field after returning from Europe.
“There are many problems in Afghanistan. People don’t have work. It is not easy to find a job,” he explains.
Then a friend suggested they go into the coffin-making business together. Samiullah agreed.
“I don’t like to sell coffins to [the families of] victims of attacks. They are in a very sad state,” he says, adding that he doesn’t have a choice because they form a large part of his clientele.
“When they come, I try to behave very well with them. Even if they are angry and beat me, I will not say anything to them. I know what they must be going through,” he says with a tired smile.
Samiullah usually sells two to three coffins a week. When there is an attack, his business increases, but not always significantly.
The price of a coffin ranges from 1,000 to 4,000 afghani ($15 to $60). The more expensive ones are studier as they tend to be for bodies that need to be transported to other provinces.
“When the weather is hot, ice needs to be put in the coffins. Or when the bodies have been burnt,” he says matter-of-factly.
The families are responsible for handling the dead bodies, and Samiullah doesn’t always see them. But when he does, it is difficult to get the images out of his head.
“Once, a car pulled over here and a man came out. He was very angry. His son, a school student from Logar, had died in a hospital here. A rocket had hit their home and the family had brought him to Kabul for treatment.”
The man asked Samiullah to make a coffin for his son. “I asked what size the coffin should be. They said, ‘You can come and see for yourself’.”
The boy was 13 years old. “It made me so sad,” Samiullah says, shaking his head.
Twenty-nine-year-old Bariyalay Khan has been selling coffins in Kabul’s Kote Sangi neighbourhood for three years.
“There were no other jobs. At the moment, people are dying a lot in Afghanistan. There are many explosions,” he says, seated on a wooden bed surrounded by shelves full of burial shrouds and prayer mats.
About four months ago, Khan sold 50 coffins in one day. That day, May 31, 150 people died when a tanker bomb exploded in one of the busiest neighbourhoods of Kabul during the morning rush hour.
In July, a car bombing targeted government employees in western Kabul, killing at least 35.
Some of the dead were brought to Khan to be transported to other provinces. “It was not possible to recognise them from their faces. Their bodies were in pieces. They had been put in fruit cases,” Khan says, visibly shaken by the memory.
After that, he says he couldn’t eat for three days.
Another image has lodged itself in his mind. “When there was a blast in Deh Mazang Square during a demonstration, they brought a woman’s body here. Her legs had been cut off.”
Around 80 people died in that blast in July 2016.
“When the families of victims come to me, they are very angry and they use bad words. But I just act like I heard nothing,” Khan says, shrugging.
Before Khan started his own business he worked as a coffin maker’s apprentice in Sarai Shamali. “Back then, there were only two shops in all of Kabul. Now, there are at least 40 to 50.”
Coffin-making provides Khan and his family of five with a decent living. But he says he doesn’t want his children to continue in his footsteps.
“I am forced to continue this job. There is nothing else,” he says, resigned.
“If the security situation were good, nobody would need coffins.”