An increasing unease

Kabul: Crime and violence in the Afghan capital have prompted fears that the calm after the Taliban is over.

April 06, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - A squad of British soldiers armed with automatic weapons peered through last night's mist on the dusty edge of Kabul, hunting an elusive enemy in a landscape of secrets.

As Muslim prayers blared from a distant loudspeaker, the soldiers stopped at the edge of a graveyard and gazed at the twisting channels in a broad river plain. "It's like a rabbit warren," said Sgt. Smudge Smith, the patrol leader. "It's like a maze, getting through there."

Armed bandits, sometimes traveling in groups of 20, have crossed the river bed to reach the ramshackle neighborhood Barchi, west of central Kabul. Slipping through alleys, breaking into mud-brick compounds, they have robbed and terrorized impoverished residents - and have shot four to death.

These crimes are not the only worry. For there is a growing sense of unease in the city, a fear that the capital's relative calm in the months after the collapse of Taliban rule is evaporating.

Officials in Afghanistan's interim government announced this week that security forces had arrested hundreds of people suspected of plotting car bombings and abductions to destabilize the city. Critics said the arrests represented the start of a campaign of repression against political rivals. Western diplomats talked about terrorist attacks as though they were inevitable.

And there was the worrisome crime problem in Barchi, which may be about more than mere bandits.

The bandits came from the general direction of a military base controlled by Abdulrab Rasoul Sayyaf, one of the country's most powerful warlords. Once a supporter of the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban, Sayyaf is said to be unhappy with his share of the spoils. He is an ethnic Pashtun; the new government is dominated by Tajiks.

Most Barchi residents are ethnic Hazaras and are convinced that Sayyaf is behind the attacks. The British soldiers, who say the robbers appear to be highly organized, don't rule out that possibility. "If Mr. Sayyaf wanted to up the political stakes," said Maj. Adam Eaton, in charge of patrols in Barchi, "he could do so by causing trouble in the Hazara community."

Maj. Gen. John McColl, British commander of the International Security Assistant Force, met with Sayyaf earlier this week. Security force spokesmen declined to discuss the subject or outcome of the talks. Efforts to reach Sayyaf yesterday were unsuccessful.

Whatever the cause of the attacks, the people of Barchi are terrified. In an incident last weekend, a woman tried to escape a gang of bandits by climbing a ladder. The thieves kicked it out from under her, then shot her in the stomach as she lay on the ground. She died there. Then they shot her husband, who died on his way to the hospital. None of the intruders has been captured.

To halt the violence, British officers dispatched more than 90 soldiers there Monday and began round-the-clock patrols. About 30 members of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment turned the local police station into their barracks. Since Monday, no break-ins have been reported.

That doesn't mean the neighborhood is safe. Earlier this week, tracer rounds were fired over the barracks. Later, in the riverbed, 12 armed men came within a few hundred yards of a British patrol and fired six shots. All passed harmlessly above the heads of the Royal Anglians, who briefly returned fire. The area abruptly fell silent.

Some of the Royal Anglians on patrol last night were clearly anxious. Like most members of his unit, Pvt. Mark Simmons, 22, has served in Northern Ireland. Afghanistan, he said, is worse. "In Ireland, they fire a few rounds or a rocket-propelled grenade and run," he said. "They make sure they can get away. Over here, they don't care if they get away or not."

Some units of the 1st Battalion are descendants, in military history, of the 44th Regiment of Foot. In January 1842, 16,000 44th Regiment soldiers and civilians fled an uprising against the British occupation in Kabul, marching east toward Jalalabad.

Only one soldier completed the march, a doctor. Most of the rest were slaughtered.

Last night, cradling their weapons in their arms, the soldiers patrolled a labyrinth of alleys lined by 12-foot-high mud-brick walls. Each man kept about 20 yards from the soldier in front. One walked on one side of an open sewer running down the middle of the alleys, one on the other side. "If we stay together, we make ourselves a bigger target," said Arajah "Roger" Cambridge, 29, a tall, affable soldier from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent.

He had slept three of the previous 48 hours. "I'm never nervous, never scared," he said. "When you're nervous about something, it happens."

Beyond the edge of the neighborhood, the patrol fanned out, the soldiers frequently turning to look behind them. After scrambling along a bluff above the river, they headed back toward the mud compounds. And quickly encountered three men with AK-47s.

The three turned out to be police.

"Hello!" the Afghans called.

"Salaam!" said one of the soldiers. Peace!

The foreign troops are concerned about the quality and loyalty of the Afghan police, who are poorly trained and poorly paid. Some are suspected of working with, or even joining the bandits, and working with Sayyaf. Residents approach the foreign peacekeeping troops to report break-ins and other crimes. When local police accompany the patrols, the British say, the locals stay away.

The British described what happened Thursday night: A woman came to the police station to report that someone was breaking into her house. The police told her to get out of the station. The British sent a patrol to investigate but found no signs of a break-in.

Mohamed Amin, a Barchi resident, said the holdups are the work of Sayyaf's troops and accused them of Taliban sympathies. When an armed gang staged a holdup, he said, a thief told his victims: "Don't forget, we are still here."

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