A city that must die alone: Kabul remained intact throughout 13 years of anti-Communist jihad. Today it is shattered - but does the west care? Raymand Whitaker reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The mujahedin at Mehmoud Khan bridge were nervous. There was blood on the sandbags from a mortar shell that had wounded four of their comrades a few hours earlier, metal brackets from the rocket grenades they had fired were scattered underfoot, and the snow-capped mountains around the city were echoing to further heavy exchanges.

A taxi came careering across the Kabul river with a dead mans feet sticking out of the boot, passing two government tanks from the forces of President Burhanuddin Rabbani, roaring up to the front line a few hundred yards away.

The mujahedin retreated to their bunker, fearing that the armoured vehicles would attract incoming fire, but all the time civilians were crossing the bridge in small groups, ignoring warnings to take cover. They had been so numbed by incessant fighting that they behaved as if it was beneath their notice, and a couple of hours later two were killed by another mortar shell in the same spot.

Like birds with migratory patterns imprinted in their brains, Kabul's citizens try to overlook the fact that the clock tower at Mehmoud Khan bridge has been half blown away, that the Pul-i-Kishti mosque has a giant hole in its dome, or that the old money-changers' bazaar where one could cash a personal cheque drawn on any British high-street bank, has vanished. Jadi Marwand, once the main shopping street, resembles a German city in 1945.

This is Asia's Sarajevo, yet it has not aroused a fraction of the international concern. War broke out in the former Yugoslavia at almost the same moment that the mujahedin moved into the Afghan capital. Since then, 10,000 people are estimated to have been killed in Sarajevo; 12,000 in Kabul. The siege of the Bosnian capital was broken after a mortar attack on a market shocked the world, but there is no pressure to intervene here.

Nothing like this happened during the 13 years of jihad against Kabuls Communist regime, which was supported by Soviet troops from December 1979 to February 1989. In spite of billions of dollars' worth of weaponry given to both sides in a classic Cold War proxy conflict, the city remained intact apart from the occasional rocket salvo. Even after President Najibullah fell in April 1992, and the mujahedin began tearing the city apart in one power struggle after another, the historic core escaped the worst.

Now it has been shattered, along with the capital's identity. Some 400,000 people had fled Kabul during previous battles, but since New Year's Day, when the longest and most bitter fighting began, the number has doubled. Another 350,000 have been displaced within the city, leaving inner areas depopulated while outlying districts have doubled in size. President Rabbani has retreated to Paghman, 10 miles from Kabul, after opposing troops got to within 100 yards of his office in January.

Those who have always lived in Kabul feel doubly abandoned. Not only has the world lost interest in Afghanistan since the defeat of Communism, they say, but it has failed to condemn the destruction of the capital by outsiders: rural mujahedin who never had any understanding of, or respect for, the city and its inhabitants. Kabul doesnt belong to these people, said a foreign-trained Afghan doctor. They have been imported here and they don't care about its people. This city has been the capital for centuries. It has a lot of history, and they are destroying it. Show me a country where the president and the prime minister are prepared to obliterate their own capital during their quarrels.

Not only that: in his efforts to force President Rabbani to resign, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the nominal Prime Minister, has imposed a food blockade on the government side, forcing aid bodies to negotiate every shipment with him. The International Committee of the Red Cross, almost the only international organisation still represented in the capital, estimates that up to 800,000 people cannot afford the food smuggled into the markets. Cases of kwashiorkor have begun to appear among children, and malnutrition is multiplying deaths from respiratory infections and diarrhoea. Last year there was cholera; it is expected to return with greater virulence in May, hard on the heels of typhoid.

After the slaughter of early January, the battle for Kabul has settled down to a deadly stalemate. The opposing forces still pour fire into each others' positions, and there is the occasional air raid, but the population is as much at risk from sheer lawlessness. Battles regularly erupt between forces nominally on the same side over stolen weapons or loot.

As far as the West is concerned, a line was drawn with the collapse of the Najibullah regime. The fighting that began almost immediately among the victorious mujahedin was part of a new phase of Afghan history that had nothing to do with the rest of the world. Afghans have always fought one another, it was argued, and with the superpower aspect removed it was no longer anyone's business but their own. Aid bodies now find it impossible to raise money for Afghanistan.

But the conflict continues what went before. The weapons with which it is being fought came from Russia, America and other Western countries, including Britain; the leaders conducting it were built up with Western money.

This is particularly true of Mr Hekmatyar, an anti-Western Islamic radical who received the bulk of the American money channelled into the resistance. His strategy was not to waste resources on fighting the Soviet-backed regime, but to save them for the struggle to come. President Rabbani and his military commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, are more kindly thought of abroad, but have shown no more solicitude for Kabul than their opponents.

No part of Afghanistan can be said to be at peace the south and east have become the world's main opium-producing area, militants from more than a dozen Third World countries are being trained at secret camps, and there is constant fighting north of the Hindu Kush. But the destruction of Kabul overshadows everything else.

The Islamic world, so vocal on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims, has been silent on this self-immolation of one of its members. The OIC Organisation of the Islamic Conference is powerless here, said an academic. Too many of its members Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia are busy interfering in our affairs. The United Nations has to help.

The UN is at last raising its diplomatic profile: a former Tunisian foreign minister, Mahmoud Mestiri, is on his way to Afghanistan to explore possibilities for peace. On Wednesday the Security Council called on the factions to stop fighting and support Mr Mestiri's mission. But the UN has to rebuild its credibility after quitting Kabul in January. The blue-painted doors of its many compounds are closed and the buildings empty, apart from the one in which Mr Najibullah took sanctuary nearly two years ago. He refuses to see anyone apart from visiting UN officials and a handful of close relatives.

If the former president could emerge from his semi-imprisonment, he might see how far the people of Kabul have been reduced. This is how the Afghan doctor described a patient who lost both legs in a rocket attack: He had to be taken to hospital in a wheelbarrow, and could not pay for an X-ray. He had a street stall, and his family shared a house with five others in the old quarter. After losing his wife and one child to rockets, he moved with the rest to a safer area, where they shared with another family. But after a while his hosts said they could not afford to keep them any longer.

A burst of machine-gun fire interrupted the doctor, then he continued: This man went back to his old home to recover some possessions not gold, not share certificates, but a few pillows and blankets. Now he has lost everything. The West says this is an internal problem, a fight among Muslim fundamentalists. Is that why you are not interested? Because we are Muslims?

(Photograph omitted)