Refugees glad to be free of Taliban grip

Afghans hoping U.S. bombs drive out ruling government

War On Terrorism

The World

October 24, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AINGARI, Afghanistan - Beginning at daybreak, they arrive at this desolate stretch of rutted road on foot, or packed into lumbering Mercedes buses or bright green Soviet jeeps or yellow-and-white taxis.

The new arrivals will have already spent a full day traveling, carrying everything they own, and walked for at least three hours past armed sentries, through a battle front where American warplanes drop bombs daily. They are hungry, exhausted - and exhilarated to be free of Taliban control.

These are the latest refugees from the Afghan capital, Kabul, who have decided they have had enough.

Afghans fleeing Kabul say they are delighted their city is under attack. The more intense the American bombing, they argue, the sooner the Taliban will leave.

The courage of the Taliban? "They are afraid of the people of Kabul," said Mahfuz, who squeezed out a living for his wife and six children selling fruit and vegetables in a Kabul market. "They are afraid of the bombing."

To avoid their barracks and reduce the risk of being bombed, some Taliban are taking over private homes, refugees said.

"It's true, they take your apartment," said Mahfuz, who uses only one name. "The people cannot do anything. There, the Taliban have the power."

The Taliban are also apparently storing weapons in mosques and schools, using the structures as shields against the bombing, refugees said. After the bombing began, 10 tanks were parked on the grounds of the mosque in Kotal-e-Khairkhana, north of Kabul, refugees said.

"The people are very angry and worried, because the people pray in the mosque," said Muhammed Alli, a 50-year-old former bus driver. "They worry about the air strikes. They won't go to the mosque."

Mahfuz said that an American bomb landed Monday in a residential area called Porja-e-Jadid, killing eight people and injuring 12.

A few weeks ago, the arriving refugees were from the middle class. Now, the poor, too, seem to be leaving.

Alli was wearing a traditional Afghan tunic yesterday when he approached the Aingari checkpoint. Arriving on foot, he carried a four-foot wooden staff. Six baby-faced men armed with Kalashnikov rifles were in charge of the checkpoint.

Why did he leave Kabul?

"I did not have anything to eat," he said. "The U.N. used to give us some bread, but they cut it off."

His two wives and six children, the youngest of them 3 years old, were several miles behind him and heading to the checkpoint. His caravan had begun together at about 4:30 a.m. Since he was the first to arrive, he made arrangements for the others to cross what passes for a border.

Dangerous to look happy

In Kabul, he said, it had become dangerous even to appear happy. The Taliban took into custody three of his neighbors who had been joking on the street, in the days after the bombing began, he said. Authorities believed that his neighbors were happy the regime was threatened with collapse, he said; none of the three has been seen since.

Before the bombing began, about 70 refugees a day arrived at this checkpoint, at a well facing the soaring peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains. The number has increased to 90 a day, said Zaralam, the chief immigration officer on duty.

Taliban sentries don't try to stop the refugees. Those fleeing Kabul have to survive bandits at work near the frontier, and there is little to greet them here. Eucalyptus and birch trees line stream banks flanked by wheat and corn fields. But a rocky desert begins a few feet from the irrigated land and rolls up to the peaks of the mountains. Most new arrivals go to any of three refugee camps. The Northern Alliance and private aid groups are strained by efforts to keep the refugees housed and fed.

Americans welcome

Refugees who manage to get this far insist they would welcome Americans in Kabul. "If anyone comes to Kabul, the situation should get better," said Habib Khan, who supported his seven children in the capital with odd jobs. "We don't care who comes to Kabul."

Alli, the former bus driver, agreed: "All of the people of Kabul say, `Any people who come in Kabul and take the power - the Americans, the British, the Russians - they should do it.' I'm very happy to let them."

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