AFGHANISTAN'S C ITY OF CHILDREN

Sixteen years of war have given a grim new meaning to youth opportuniti es in Kabul. So manyi adults have died that many families are now headed by small children, their only breadwinners
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The Independent Culture
NANGI is 10 years old. He has two sisters and an elder brother. He also has a nice smile, black hair and a long robe made of rags. He seems a good-natured boy, but his eyes are the eyes of an adult. Nangi is a mechanic at the Kwey Markas garage. He has been working from 8am until 9pm nearly every day for three years, ever since his father was killed here by a rocket explosion. Once a month Nangi returns home. He has time only to embrace his mother and to change his clothes.

Since the death of his father, Nangi has been the breadwinner of his family. He earns 2,000 afghanis a month, equivalent to about 40p, or the price of 1kg of rice. There are thousands of children like him in Kabul. Fatherless or motherless, often both, and invariably more or less penniless, they have the additional burden of having to support relatives. The unluckier ones have to make do as best they can, taking work where they can find it, or scavenging or stealing. The lucky ones find employment all too conveniently waiting for them, in the jobs vacated by their dead fathers.

Not far from Kwey Markas garage, there is a little half-ruined stone house. Inside, carpets cover the floor of beaten earth. The sun has not yet risen, but a petrol lamp gives the room a pretty blue colour. A woman sits motionless by a wooden stove; next to her is a boy. On the other side of the partition, someone is crying. This is the home of Jamshid, the little baker. He is nine years old, but he too has the look of an adult. He speaks quickly, his eyes fixed on those of his interviewer. He seems a mischievous young man, with plenty of character. He says that he has only one memory of his father, who died five years ago: a large hand which used to stroke him on the cheek. His mother, whom he supports, is a good-natured woman, stocky, wrinkled, but she seems worried because someone is crying in her house. Jamshid does not have time to think about this, however, as it is already time for him to leave for work.

It is only a short walk, but he must be at the bakery by 4am - and he will still be there at 9pm. He has worked there, in the place of his father, for the past year, and he earns 12,000 afghanis (about £2.50) a month.

He does not complain: he knows that, compared with many Kabul children, he is lucky. It is the war, not the work, that depresses him. He knows that there are countries which are not like this: a country at peace, he says, is a place where people do not kill each other and where rockets do not fall from the sky. But he is not sure that this will ever be possible in Afghanistan.

As Jamshid begins to bake his first loaves of the day, the rest of Kabul is coming to life; and, all over what remains of the city, children are going to work. Near the centre, two brothers are on their way to a smithy. Tour Yallay, 14 years old, and his little brother Nang, nine, make 8,000 afghanis a month between them. They do the same trade as their father, a blacksmith, who was killed five years ago by a rocket. Tour and Nang are shy and smiling. They live with their family of 10 in one of the classrooms of a school that has been let to the homeless. Their work consists mainly of hammering steel plates, nine hours a day. It is a man's work. But Tour and Nang are still children: before crossing the road, Tour holds his little brother's hand.

By Kabul's standards, what Nang and Tour earn makes the family quite prosperous. A few months ago, the family treated themselves to a piece of meat. But that was when the elder brother of Tour and Nang was working at the smithy - before he had both legs blown off by a mine.

KABUL must rank among the worst places in the world for children to grow up in. Those who lose their parents have the cares of adulthood suddenly thrust upon them at an absurdly young age, as well as living with the constant danger and stress of unremitting bombardment. The entire third floor of the Indira Gandhi Hospital is occupied by wounded children. There is no electricity, and the doctors are devastated by fatigue. It is a scene from hell: 180 children crying from their suffering, many with legs or arms amputated or due to be amputated, others wounded by bullets or shrapnel, in the stomach, the back, the legs, the head. From somewhere in the shadows, mothers can be heard crying, while the few surviving fathers pray in silence. Then the mortars and the shelling resume, often shattering whatever glass remains in the windows.

In winter, things become worse. Children already weak from hunger succumb readily to respiratory infections, and the toll of malnutrition cases increases. Thirty per cent of Kabul's children are thought to be suffering from malnutrition, and the hospital treats - or tries to treat - some 3,000 cases a year.

At the hospital's orthopaedic centre, a little boy cries softly as he tries on his new leg. Hundreds of patients are equipped with prostheses here every week. Eighty per cent of them are victims of landmines; one in five is a child. Being smaller than adults, children are less likely to survive the explosions of the mines which litter every street, every spare patch of ground. But many survive none the less, terribly mutilated when their lives have scarcely begun. In 1993 (the last year for which figures are available), the orthopaedic factory at Kabul produced 1,397 prostheses, 1,404 wheelchairs, and 22,731 pairs of crutches.

Not far from the hospital is an asylum for the insane. Among the 22 inmates is a child so thin that it scares you to death. He has no name, no memory and no future. Nothing is known about him except that he is about 10 years old. He was found last month, on the side of a road, with burns on his back. Since then, he has remained in the asylum, without speaking, crouching and rocking to and fro, hiding his face in his hands if anyone approaches.

KABUL was once a civilised place, a city of stone or clay houses and concrete flats. Nothing worth speaking of remains. It is a field of ruins. Each major event in its recent history - the Soviet invasion in 1979, the withdrawal in 1989, the fall of the pro-Soviet communist government in 1992, the UN withdrawal (on the grounds that the city was "too dangerous") in 1994 - has been followed by the same sequel: more fighting.

All Afghanistan has suffered, but Kabul, as the seat of power, has suffered the worst. In 1989, some 1.2 million people lived here. Remarkably, nearly 800,000 remain; but hardly any live in proper homes. Instead, they move from quarter to quarter, according to the fluctuations of the front line, which moves regularly but never leaves Kabul. Every month, around 400 civilians are killed. The Red Cross estimates that 13,500 have been killed, and 80,000 wounded, since the current full-scale civil war came to Kabul three years ago.

The main combatants are the "moderate" government of President Burhannudin Rabbani and the "fundamentalist" faction of prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but there are scores of factions and leaders thirsty for power. None could be described as moderate; all claim to be acting in the name of God. There are regular ceasefires, but none lasts, and no one - children, adults, locals, foreigners - seems to see any prospect of the city ever again enjoying peace.

The hopelessness is most disturbing among the children. You can sense it when you look in the makeshift classroom a few hundred metres from the hospital. This is a private school, beyond the means of most people; it costs 500 afghanis (10p) a month to send a child for lessons here. None the less, there must be 100 pupils in the room. The youngest is three years old; the oldest 16. They sit cross-legged, one against the other, the Koran balanced on their knees. From time to time they sing, in small, sad voices. They have only one teacher between them. She is a child herself: Tahera, a 15-year-old girl with her hair hidden by a black scarf. She teaches reading to the youngest children, and religion to the older ones. There is only one book to work from: the Koran.

Tahera's salary is 40,000 afghanis (£8) a month. She has worked here for two years. Her father was a mullah who was imprisoned for four years by the communist regime. Then, two years ago, he was struck down by a shell. Tahera now has to support her mother, two brothers and five sisters. She rarely smiles.

In a broken voice, strained by too much singing, Tahera asks about Europe, this extraordinary place where, she has heard, children do not live in fear of rockets. It is clear that she has difficulty believing this, just as she is unable to imagine that a child in a city can simply say "I'm going to play outside" without worrying about mines. Tahera was born right at the beginning of Afghanistan's modern troubles. As a child, she lived in the countryside, but the fighting drove her family to Kabul. They thought that it would be safer there.

Amir Mamad's family took the opposite view. When the Soviet troops invaded, they stayed in the countryside. Then Amir's father was imprisoned by the Soviets. After he was freed, the family settled in Kabul, where he worked as a tailor - until three years ago, when he was killed in a bombing raid.

Now Amir has become the tailor. Aged 12, he earns 25,000 afghanis (£5) a month. It is a good wage, but then Amir has a large family to provide for, including four sisters and four brothers, one of whom has been in a state of shock since the death of their father.

Amir's speciality is needlework. When he is sewing, he is an impressive sight, a skilled craftsman: leaning over, needle in his hand, he wets two fingers on his other hand, then takes an invisible thread and passes it first time through the eye of the needle, almost without looking. He never flinches, not even when the rockets fall a little nearer than usual. He does hems and little mending jobs. He is not allowed to use machines, though, because he is still too young. Amir does not want to talk about the war, nor about his father. All he wants is for someone to tell him when peace will come.

The ironic thing is that many soldiers responsible for the constant shooting and shelling are scarcely older than the young civilians they terrorise. In a smoke-filled shelter on the outskirts of the city, a 15-year-old warrior named Abdul is among a group of soldiers resting from the fighting. The air is thick with the smell of cooking, tobacco and dirty clothes; a stove warms the room. From time to time, a burst of gunfire is heard, but neither Abdul nor any of the older soldiers shows any concern.

A large, rather ungainly adolescent, Abdul has a rocket launcher on his shoulder and a Kalashnikov in his hand. He has been fighting for two years, for 20,000 afghanis (£4) a month. He fights in the front line without really knowing why: perhaps because his father, who died two years ago, was also a combatant; more probably because he cannot see another way of feeding his mother, his sister and his little brother.

His mother (who looks so old that it is hard to believe that she is only 34) says that she is very proud of Abdul, and that Abdul no longer has the right to be a child. She is not afraid for him, she says, because she believes that Allah is naturally protecting him. But what does Abdul feel about Islam, about fighting, about his father, about peace? Abdul is silent. He smokes a cigarette end so short that it burns his fingers. He plays around with his weapon, examining it: the barrel, the breech, the ammunition clip, the ammunition. Abdul is a child who is only interested in assault rifles. !

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