Fear and Despair in Kabul

Afghans have known nothing but awar for the past 17 years. They have always been afraid—afraid of the Afghan secret police, of the Soviets, of the mujahideen, of land mines, of the cold, of hunger, and of the Taliban rockets that can strike at any time without warning. They are fed up of being afraid.

Maliha is 19 years old, a child of war. She has known little but sorrow, pain and fear. Three years ago, a rocket landed on her family´s house in Chelsetoun. "The ceiling crashed on our heads and I woke up in hospital. My father and mother, along with my four brothers and sisters, were all killed."

Taken in first by her aunt, Maliha lives today in this decrepit flat with the surviving members of her family: an alert sister of 14 and a seven-year-old brother whose eyes are full of fear. Maliha is lucky because her job with a Western relief agency earns her USD 100 a month, which is a fortune in Kabul these days.

Maliha´s freezing apartment with its plastic sheet covering broken window panes has a tenacious, all-pervading smell of burning. The "dining room" wall has a hole where a shell came in. The family room is separated by a curtain, and the furniture consists of a piece of yellowish linoleum on the floor with a few cushions. There has been no electricity, no heating, no water here for three years, and the winter temperature can fall well below minus 20 degrees Celsius.

A million Kabulis live in conditions similar to Maliha´s. This collective suffering cannot be compared with anything in any of the other violent corners of South Asia. The suffering of Kabul´s population is unique, and practically unreported.

This is Kabul today: the bleak Soviet architecture, the rubble of toppled buildings on the streets, frozen garbage in the backyards, clothes drying on balconies— and ruins everywhere. The rums of a country at war with itself, and a once-proud city that lies dying. All bombed cities look the same in their uniformity of destroyed houses and the misery of the survivors in the rubble: Dresden, Berlin, Grozny, Kabul.

At least 25,000 Kabulis have been killed in the last four years: first in the house-to-house fighting as mujahideen fought each other, then in the bombardments from the outskirts by the Jamaat-e-Islami and later the Taliban. One million Afghans have died since 1979, five million others have fled to Pakistan and Iran. Many of them are still there.

Child of War

Maliha´s life is intertwined with war. Her house stands on the banks of the Kabul River on the frontline between the intense inter-mujahideen wars that have successively ravaged Kabul since 1992. It was the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government that year which sparked off infighting between various factions that were once united in the anti-Soviet jihad.

Maliha was bom in 1977, two years before the communist takeover. She is too young to remember or care about the times when upper-class Afghan girls could roam around in a cosmopolitan Kabul, dressed in smart skirts and shiny leather jackets. "My family was orthodox. I am a Muslim and so wearing the veil is no effort. I carry the burdens of a family, that is why I have remained unmarried. In Kabul, our primary thoughts are food and survival."

Two years ago, the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostam, himself a former communist, joined the rebels against the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul. Rabbani´s position is shaky but he gets strength from his Tajik cousin, Ahmad Shah Masoud, hero of the jihad and a brilliant guerrilla leader who is now Defence Minister.

Rabbani and Masoud today control only half a dozen out of thirty provinces of Afghanistan—the rest are in the hands of the Taliban and Gen Dostam. It was Gen Dostam´s cannons that fired the shells that fell on Maliha´s house in Chelsetoun.

Maliha is tired of being afraid. She could leave Kabul, but where would she go? The rich have already left, only the middle class and the poor remain. What does it matter whether the shells strike at shorter or longer intervals? The Taliban are at the gates of Kabul and regularly shell the city. Who cares that the Taliban wants to impose an even more Islamic society in Afghanistan that won´t allow women to work or study?

"I am only afraid at night when the wind blows in the plastic sheets or when someone knocks at the door," Maliha tells a visitor.

A City´s Betrayal

The 10-year war between the Soviet Army and the mujahideen hadn´t affected Kabul much. Guerrillas would shell the capital from time to time, but life was fairly normal in Kabul. Its inhabitants, although wary of the ever-present political police, would still go to the movies, to the restaurants, to the chaikhanas to sip tea sitting cross-legged on the floor, and to private courtyards to plot and conspire. The expatriates would keep count of the rockets while drinking beer at the British Embassy club or at the United Nations bar.

"We were better off under communist rule," says one Kabul intellectual, voicing the unanimous refrain of a city that disliked the communists as much as they do today´s ruling ´Islamists´. Neither does this prevent them from criticising the Taliban who are camped at the city´s outskirts, bent on imposing an even more severe Islamic order. The bickering brothers of liberated´ Afghanistan are settling scores. The prize is Kabul, a city that according to one old saying can only be "either a throne or a coffin, nothing in between".

Today, the chaikhanas have almost disappeared, a few restaurants still exist and the movie halls remain open. Incredibly, Kabul survives. It is used to the daily shelling and the aerial bombings aimed at the presidential palace near the city centre. The days ´with´ now outnumber the days ´without´ bombing. "One gets used to rockets," comments a lady doctor wearing a light veil.

Broken alliances, reversals of loyalties and other betrayals are everyday occurrences in this War of Four Years. Take a look at, say, the career of Masoud, once hailed as the "Lion of Panjshir", the area from which his forces taunted the Soviet Army. With the best-trained and best-equipped army, Masoud has managed to maintain his hold over the capital, resisting forces made up of former allies and former enemies. At the same time, anti-Masoud forces are united to fight another force, the Taliban which have overrun the southern half of Afghanistan in the last year. (See Himal, Nov/Dec 1995)

Here, then, is a brief summary of the present situation: the Kabul ´government´ is surrounded in the north, the north-east and the east by Dostam´s forces, who are themselves hostile to the Taliban attackers from the south. Everyone is against the Taliban, but somehow Masoud and Dostam have failed to bury their difference to confront them.

There is no doubt in any one´s mind here who is stoking the fires of the Afghan conflict. Domestic ethnic, sectarian and ideological differences are being sharpened by mentors in the region who are playing out their proxy wars on the poor Afghans. They all have their hands in the Afghan pie: Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia.

"All this is absurd. I do not even want to talk politics any more. I have even stopped listening to the radio. I don´t give a damn," says Habib, a French language instructor. Afraid of fighters on all sides, he has tried to blend in by wearing a Muslim skull cap, a Pathan dress and growing a beard. "I disguise myself as a mujahideen."

Omar is a chemist, and also wears a ´mujahideen disguise´. He says with disgust: "It is a tough choice: on the one hand are the ´moderates´ of Kabul, and on the other, the extremists on the southern front. One has to survive between these two evils."

Along the frontlines to the south of Kabul is the once-fashionable suburb adjoining the royal palace of Daroulaman. Amidst the rubble of houses stands Mohammed Jan. He is afraid of hunger. "If I were to show you my tummy, you would know that 1 have not eaten well for a long time," he says. "I only get to eat dry bread and drink tea. But I´m not leaving. Only the rich have left. I send my daughter and my wife to beg in the streets during the daytime. I am waiting for the bullet that will kill me eventually."

It is ten o´clock in the morning. Nearby, the blast of the first incoming shells herald a new day of fighting. Behind the tanks, inside make-shift bunkers, the defenders of Kabul talk disparagingly of the Taliban, who have taken positions a few kilometres away with tanks which are the same model as theirs. Here, every side fights with the same salvaged hardware of the former Russian enemy.

"They smoke hashish and aim randomly at each other," says Mohammed. Hunkered down behind a mound of sandbags is Ammanullah. His combat uniform is in shreds, tennis shoes full of holes, and unkempt hair falls on his face. He claims to be 18 years old, but looks barely 14. His voice breaks, betraying fear, when he swears that he is "ready for the supreme sacrifice". Beyond the sandbags, across the barren slopes at the base of the snow-capped hills in a bunker like his own, is another Ammanullah. His enemy.

View of the False Communist

During the heyday of the Europe-to-india overland travel, Chicken Street at Kabul´s heart used to be where weary travellers stayed and stocked up on provisions. Today, Chicken Street still overflows with food: piles of caviar and cans of ham, vegetables and meat, but the prices are beyond the average Kabuh´s reach.

Ghulam, 12, swings an old can that has incense burning inside—all the time casting a wary eye at the sky to look out for diving Taliban bombers. A passer-by pays and sniffs a few times in order to avoid the ´evil eye´. The street urchin, in his chapka with falling ear-covers and his patched-up trousers, has a mischievous grin as he says: "Yes, the bombs frighten me but I have to walk the streets for my work." Ghulam earns the equivalent of half a dollar a day.

Abdul too, is frightened. But he refuses to grow a beard. During the communist rule, this son of a former Afghan aristocrat let himself be persuaded to join the party, then he was afraid to send back his membership card. He earned scholarships to study in Eastern Europe and Soviet Central Asia, spending most of the war abroad. He shows black-and-white pictures taken in Tashkent where he had given a talk at a university under the portrait of Marx.

"Do you know that 90 percent of former members of the political police work for the present government?" Abdul whispers. "I never was a communist. In this country, I have met neither a genuine communist nor a genuine Islamist…"

"The Taliban are certainly the worst of the lot. But neither can we agree with any of the other groups, whether moderate or not, whether holding power in Kabul or not. If Bangladesh or Pakistan can have women prime ministers, why can´t we? Are we a different kind of Muslim country?"

It is ijtar, the moment to break the ceremonial fasting of Ramadan that Abdul follows scrupulously. His wife lays out a feast of kababs, fruits, raisins, bread, cakes and a puts a kettle to boil. Outside, night is falling gently and the snow peaks are dimly visible. Abdul says he is lucky to have escaped the ´witch-hunt´, and he owes his good fortune to the modest rank he held in the party hierarchy.

It is ironic that people like Abdul are safest in the midst of the chaos and confused politics of today´s theatre of the absurd in Kabul. Former communists are disguised as mujahideen, former mujahideen brothers are fighting themselves, but Abdul, the genuinely false communist, has managed to retain his dignity.

– B. Philip, who was in Kabul earlier this year, is the South Asia correspondent for Le Monde. Translated from the original French by Kalpana Ghimire.

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