In Kabul, the poor ride out U.S. airstrikes

Refugees fleeing north say only ground assault will dislodge Taliban

War On Terrorism : The World

October 11, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GULBAHAR, Afghanistan - For the people of Kabul, life under bombardment has fallen into a predictable and terrifying routine.

At 6 p.m. each day, as the city darkens and the Taliban police begin enforcing a curfew that bars civilians from the street, the estimated 1 million residents return home, gathering with loved ones to wait for American bombs.

They wait in darkness. The Taliban have cut electricity in the city to eliminate lights that might guide American pilots. Families who use lanterns and candles - common after 20 years of war - string thick black curtains over their windows, blinding them from what is happening outside.

The progress of the raids can be tracked through all five senses.

Jets are heard overhead, followed by the staccato sound of tens of thousands of rounds of anti-aircraft munitions being fired from the ground.

If the flash of light is missed, bomb detonations louder than any before in the war-ravaged city can be heard. For those who live close to a military base, Kabul airport or the television station, the ground shudders beneath their feet.

The smell and taste of acrid smoke mark the raid's completion.

"In the places where the bombs land, people scream," said Wahid Nawabi, 27, a shopkeeper who fled the city Tuesday with his wife and three children. "In parts of the city, the people are quiet."

Interviews with a half-dozen refugees who have fled to rebel-controlled territory here, about 50 miles north of Kabul, paint a picture of life in the Afghan capital under U.S. siege. Nights are the worst. While food is available and affordable, escape is not.

Though refugees differed over the number of civilians killed, over public sentiment toward the United States and over the strength of the Taliban regime, they were consistent on one point: The people who remain are only the desperately poor. And if they wanted to overthrow the Taliban, they are helpless to do it.

"Attacking the government with your bare hands is impossible," said Alahbaksh, 50, an auto parts salesman who fled yesterday with 33 relatives. "Only if there is a ground attack against Taliban will they fall."

They also unanimously warned that civilian casualties would instantly turn public opinion there against the United States.

"The people want a change in the government," Alahbaksh said. "They're very afraid of bombs hitting civilians."

The accounts of civilians arriving in territory controlled by the rebel Northern Alliance are inherently biased. Taliban supporters are unlikely to flee here. But while the refugees' descriptions of public sentiment might be suspect, they painted a consistent picture of living conditions in Kabul.

People lack electricity and running water, but Afghans adapted to such conditions years ago.

The people of Kabul are also not isolated. Battery-operated short-wave radios are ubiquitous and give Afghans easy access to local radio stations, Iranian radio, the BBC and Voice of America.

During the day, a semblance of normality returns to the city. Shops open, but the boulevards and bazaars are mostly empty. Sixty percent of the city's residents and its shopkeepers have fled.

Food remains plentiful, and prices have stayed constant, possibly because of the drastic drop in population.

One sharp noticeable change is a decrease in soldiers and policemen in the daytime. "I haven't seen Taliban on the street," said Shiragha, 55, a clerk who fled Tuesday. But he, like others, said he had seen no signs that the Taliban were on the verge of losing control. "They are weak now," he said, "but they still control the city."

Large numbers of Taliban soldiers - Afghans and foreign volunteers - fled on the first night of the bombings, according to refugees.

Many headed north, apparently to reinforce front lines in the standoff with the Northern Alliance, only 35 miles from the city.

Alliance commanders agree with the assessment. They say the Taliban ranks on the other side of the front line have swelled to as many as 7,000 from 3,000. Alliance forces in the area, who would have to attack, remain at 2,000.

Burhannudin, 20, an auto mechanic who left yesterday, listed every major target hit by the Americans and gave estimates for how many bombs hit each one.

With the cost of hiring cars to get one's family out of the city to Alliance territory as high as $600 - an enormous sum for an Afghan - it is clear who is trapped in Kabul.

"The poor people who aren't able to pay are stuck," said Alahbaksh, who had to borrow $600 from a friend to get himself, his two sons, 14 female relatives and 16 children out of the city.

One relative, Zabiullah, 31, wants the bombing to weaken the Taliban but not bring them down.

"If the American bombing continues, it will be dangerous for the civilians," he said. He agreed that the bombing was also dangerous for the Taliban. But he said bombs alone would not dislodge a regime made up of a generation of people raised on war. It will take a ground attack.

"It's useful," he said, of the American bombs falling on his city, "but it won't be enough."

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