The Broader Picture: Orphans in the firing-line

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I CAN understand how little Fereshta recently lost her voice. Five years ago, I found Fereshta, her sister Khadija, and 14 other children aged two-and-a-half to 12 sharing a crumbling compound with mentally disturbed, crippled and blind people on the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan capital. The children's parents were dead or in prison. A 10-year-old squatted in the corner of a room amid the stink of excrement and dried sweat, tearing at her filthy clothes. Even more horrible things had happened: one of the children had been molested by an insane inmate, another had been beaten.

The first time I met the children, I was in Kabul on a photographic assignment. For once, I was determined that I would not just take pictures but actually do something. In December 1990, while President Najibullah's Soviet-backed regime was in power, I was able to open a safe house for the children, and for two years they lived in comfortable surroundings thanks to money from the Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan, the Norwegian Red Cross, the Dalai Lama and from viewers who watched my television documentary War, Lives and Videotape, which focused on the children's plight and the setting-up of the orphanage.

Rockets occasionally hit the capital, but the children continued to attend classes, play in the fields, visit the Kabul zoo and lead a normal life. They were visited regularly by expatriate friends.

Now, almost 20 months after the mujahedin takeover of the capital, everything has changed. Machine- gun fire and shell explosions punctuate the day. Fighting between rival mujahedin factions has left many parts of Kabul in ruins. Almost no major building has escaped damage. Suburbs have been ethnically cleansed and residents flee from one neighbourhood to another.

Recently, I returned - for the second time in a year - to find out what had happened to my orphans. In the first round of fighting, their house had received a direct hit and several rockets had exploded in the garden. One of the children had died, the rest were safe. The mujahedin stole the children's beds, burnt their lockers for firewood, took all the electrical sockets, washbasins and showerheads. They even stole the wheelchair used by Sattar, a 12-year-old paraplegic.

With nowhere else to go, the children were taken back to Marastoon, the mental asylum where I had first found them. Four months ago, the mujahedin entered the mental asylum. They raped the mentally disturbed women, beat the men and shot one of the blind men in the back.

The children have now been moved into a former school which they share with more than 230 other orphans: there is hardly room to move between the dormitory beds. The authorities say 12 to 20 more orphans arrive each week as a result of the battles that continue to rage in and around Kabul. Electricity and running water have been cut off for weeks.

Like Fereshta, who only began to recover her voice in the week that I was there, many of the orphans are confused and traumatised. Under the previous government, some of Afghanistan's orphans were drilled with the tenets of Marxist thought and were taught to revere Lenin. These children now find themselves in an orphanage run by the new Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Social Affairs. Even the youngest girls must wear the headscarf and a black overcoat. On cue, they sing songs in praise of Islam and the mujahedin. A young man from the Ministry watches out for any backsliding.

A teacher using a wall as a blackboard scribbles sums under a chalk graffito which she translated for me: 'LONG LIVE OUR GLORIOUS ISLAMIC GOVERNMENT.' One of the older orphans chuckled under his breath and said: 'What government?'-