For Kabul citizens, days of uncertainty

Residents of capital wonder whether to stay as bombings continue

War On Terrorism : The World

October 15, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GOLBAHAR, Afghanistan -- As American warplanes and cruise missiles attacked targets near the Afghan capital of Kabul every evening last week, Said Mustaffa sat shaking in a jail cell listening to the roar of explosions.

The 28-year-old baker and some of his co-workers had failed to appear at their mosque in the tense weeks leading up to the U.S. bombing campaign, instead performing their five-times-a-day prayers on their own. Although solitary prayer is accepted practice for most Muslims, the suspicious and increasingly jittery Taliban disapproved.

Plainclothes officers with the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice swooped in on the bakery and arrested Mustaffa.

"Why don't you pray to God in the mosque?" they demanded. "Why do you pray alone?"

Then the air campaign began, shaking Kabul every night. For the first six days of the bombing, Mustaffa sat behind bars, hearing the rumble of explosions, hoping the Americans wouldn't decide the jail was a tempting target. Finally, the Taliban decided they had more pressing problems, and released Mustaffa on Friday. Hours later, he and his wife were headed 40 miles north to this area, controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance.

Life in Kabul under the Taliban was already harrowing for the many citizens who do not support the regime. The Taliban have banned music, picture books, women's schools, most sports and even kite-flying, and inflict whippings, amputations and stonings as punishment.

Now, residents find themselves shaken nightly by explosions, caught between the Taliban's refusal to hand over accused terrorist chief Osama bin Laden and America's wrath over the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

No one seems certain how to react. Some residents, like Mustaffa, have fled, fearing being killed by a stray cruise missile -- as were four Afghans working for an agency that removes land mines. Others are returning, recent refugees say, reassured that civilians are not deliberate targets.

Still others move back and forth between Kabul and areas controlled by the opposition. Hasan, who uses only one name, is a 35-year-old trader who brought his goats north yesterday to sell them. He planned to head home soon.

Wasn't he afraid of the bombardment of Kabul?

"In my opinion, the American people don't want to bomb or rocket civilians," he said.

Those who have fled say prices are fluctuating wildly -- soaring when people decide that the Taliban will remain in power, falling when things seem to be going badly for the regime. (In recent days, the trend has been down.)

While some are panicked by the bombings, many people go outside each evening to get a better look at the explosions. The few shops that remain open are doing a brisk business.

Many Taliban fighters sleep in Kabul during the day and travel to the front at night, residents say. Most of the time, the capital seems to have been abandoned by the regime. But political opponents still fear the Taliban's wrath and talk politics only in whispers.

"You cannot talk freely," said Farid Ahmad, a 20-year-old refugee. "There is no freedom in Kabul."

Some Kabul residents are more afraid about what might come next.

"I'm not afraid of the bombing, because it's systematic bombing" of military targets, said Abdel Fatah, a retired officer in the Soviet-backed Afghan army.

But he does fear an assault by the Northern Alliance, which could lead to the kind of house-to-house fighting that ravaged Kabul from 1992 to 1995.

"If the [Northern Alliance] and the Taliban are both in Kabul, the city will be destroyed as it was before," he said.

Fleeing Kabul across the front lines is risky. Farid Ahmad, 20, decided to leave, carrying two metal pots and a couple of small sacks filled with clothes. He left home about 4 a.m. Saturday, walked three miles north, avoiding Taliban sentries, then paid about $20 for the bus ride the rest of the way north. If he had been caught, the Taliban would have sent him to the front lines to fight.

Ahmad Fawad, 21, owns a tailor's shop in Kabul. Two months ago, the Taliban arrested his neighbor, a 35-year-old engineer, and accused him of stealing someone's coat. The engineer -- a man named Shirin Agha -- was taken to police headquarters, where he was beaten to death with metal cables in a futile effort to extract a confession, Fawad said.

With the Taliban increasingly nervous because of the bombings, Fawad decided it was time to leave. On Friday night, he took his three brothers and walked north on foot for three hours in the dark. To avoid Taliban patrols, the brothers climbed into the mountains, where they spent the night with only the clothes they wore, shivering and hungry.

That night, they watched Taliban and Northern Alliance forces fire rockets at each other and spray Kalashnikov fire. Finally, on Saturday morning, they picked their way through the villages along the front and into Northern Alliance territory.

Although Fawad fled the bombing, he says he wants it to continue.

"Right now, it is right, it is good," he said. "The Taliban should be annihilated in Afghanistan."

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