Bombs spark panic where Taliban live

Kandahar: Tens of thousands flee the city as U.S. bombs shake the ground like an earthquake.

War On Terrorism

The World

October 10, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - The first bombs dropped by U.S.-led forces on military targets in Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban regime in southern Afghanistan, shook the ground like an earthquake and sent families fleeing in terror.

In their panic, they paid huge sums for rides away from the bombing, selling goats, sheep, cows and clothing to raise money for the trip.

"All the women and children were yelling and shouting, and telling everyone to get out of their homes," said a relief worker who witnessed the bombing but was too frightened of the Taliban to give his name. "They were very scared. If a rock had watched this scene, it would have started crying."

Now, perhaps as many as 10,000 people are waiting at the border with Pakistan, hoping to escape the bombs and fear.

These are some of the accounts of life in Afghanistan that are trickling into aid agencies in Quetta, a city near the border whose residents have close business and family ties with Kandahar, less than a day's drive away.

With little communication coming out of the isolated country, aid agencies such as Guardians, a nonprofit humanitarian group that conducts de-mining work in Afghanistan, are finding it difficult to understand what is happening inside the country. But they are piecing together a picture of the impact of the attacks through interviews with their Afghan workers and reports from people leaving the country.

Based on their initial reports, more than half the residents of Kandahar, which had a population of about 400,000, have fled, Guardian officials said.

"They just ran out of their houses. The women, the children, the elderly, they were just running wherever they could," said Muhammad Arif, a representative of Guardians who has been in contact with his Afghan employees still in Kandahar.

"Whatever vehicle they were getting, they were charging a tremendous amount of money to take them out of the city."

Assurances by the United States that the attack was not meant to target civilians mattered little among people unfamiliar with so-called "smart bombs," he said.

"They think the bombs that are coming don't have eyes. They will just strike where they have to," Arif said yesterday. "It is very difficult for them to understand that these are guided missiles or [that] they know where they are supposed to hit."

The strikes were so powerful that one Taliban soldier, accustomed to Soviet-era guns and tanks, was shocked by the military hardware unleashed on his country, according to the relief worker who was unwilling to give his name.

"I was almost five kilometers away from Mullah Omar's house, and when the bombs hit, it felt like an earthquake," said the worker, who arrived in Quetta from Kandahar yesterday morning but plans to return.

The number of Afghans trying to flee to Pakistan is unclear. According to eyewitness accounts gathered by the Guardians, as many as 10,000 people have gathered near Chaman, Pakistan, the main border crossing about 85 miles from Quetta.

Pakistani authorities have sealed off the border in an effort to control the flow of refugees into their country, already home to about 2 million Afghan refugees. One aid worker said security at the border was extremely tight, creating a human logjam.

U.N. officials say many refugees hoping to cross near Chaman may have difficulty, as the Taliban appear to be building up their forces in the path of fleeing Afghans.

Last night, officials said they were receiving reports that Taliban forces were securing their border with Pakistan near Chaman. They had reportedly occupied two border towns several miles away, forcing people out of their homes.

"It may be to discourage people from coming to the border," said Rupert Colville, spokesman for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UNHCR has been amassing tents, blankets, water jugs and other supplies to prepare for an expected influx of about 300,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan and 80,000 in Iran if conditions in Afghanistan worsen.

Many people remain in Kandahar, including Taliban soldiers, some business owners, and families too poor to flee, aid workers said.

"The morning after the attack, 80 percent of the shops were open and everyone had their radio to their ears listening," said one relief worker.

But the businesses that were open quickly adapted to a wartime economy, doubling the price of food and other necessities, Guardian officials say.

President Bush had promised that the bombings would be matched with an equal effort to provide humanitarian aid. The first night of bombing, the Pentagon announced that 37,500 food packets had been distributed in Afghanistan. But Arif expressed doubts about the aid, which had not reached Kandahar according to his reports.

"It will not help the people, because people don't know what is being dropped, where it is being dropped and what is it inside those boxes," Arif said. "They might be scared just to touch those boxes."

A third night of bombings on Afghanistan, including Kandahar, was under way yesterday.

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