June 2, 2015 / 3:23 PM / 4 years ago

In Mazar, Afghans enjoy life as fighting draws near

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan (Reuters) - It is late afternoon and slivers of sunlight stream in through an exhaust fan, cutting through multicoloured strobe lights and shisha smoke in a basement karaoke club, one of more than a dozen in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

About a dozen young men lounge around on sofas, belting out ballads in Dari and clapping along to the music.

    “Usually in the evening after my job I come here to drink tea, coffee, smoke shisha and have fun,” said Najibullah, 27, a businessman.

Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, is the one of the last oases of calm in the war-torn country.

    But that is increasingly coming under threat. As a resurgent Taliban make their most intense push in recent years in the northern provinces of Afghanistan, residents here are worrying about war spilling into their city.

    “Everything depends on security,” said Farangis Sowgand, a member of the provincial council and a women’s activist. “When there is no security there is no life.”

    On April 9, weeks before the start of the annual fighting season, militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons stormed a court in the city, killing eight people, including the district police chief.

    The province’s economy has slowed with the rest of Afghanistan, where the growth rate is estimated to have fallen to 2 percent in 2014 from 3.7 percent in 2013, and an average of 9 percent during 2003-12, according to the World Bank.

    In Mazar-i-Sharif, residents complain of rising unemployment. Unfinished buildings dot the landscape, with little sign of construction work.

Sami Jan, 28, a blacksmith who has lived in the city for the past eight years, said his business had fallen by half since a new government took over in Kabul last year.

For now, though, Mazar-i-Sharif residents don’t let worries about an uncertain future stop them from enjoying life.

An Afghan carpenter works on the roof of a makeshift flower house in Mazar-i-Sharif city, Afghanistan, May 24, 2015. REUTERS/Anil Usyan

At 9.30 p.m., squeals of laughter rise above an amusement park as the swing ride starts spinning and children navigate bumper cars.

Families lay blankets and relax on the grass, feeling secure within the high walls of the park watched over by guards with AK-47s.

    “We have this facility at night. Why not enjoy it,” said Naqibullah, who was there with his wife and five children.

Additional reporting by Kay Johnson; Editing by Robert Birsel

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