Cruise missile kills UN mine-clearing staff

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The Independent Online

Hitting a school or a hospital would have been more costly to the US in propaganda terms, but if the intention was to seek out a symbol of Afghanistan's fragile effort to heal the wounds of unending war and to destroy it, the anti-terror coalition could not have done better.

As the world woke up to the news that the strikes on Kabul had claimed the lives of four UN workers, Washington's earlier insistence that all the targets hit during the first two nights of raids were military ones rang hollow. The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said he was unable to verify reports that four Afghan civilians had been killed, but regretted the loss of life.

But Monday night's error, when a Tomahawk cruise missile demolished a United Nations building in the city, killing four of its guards, was bleakly ironical. The building belonged to the Afghan Technical Consultancy (ATC), a UN-funded office that runs demining operations in the country. Afghanistan has more landmines than any other country, including 750 square kilometres of unmapped mines.

The United Nations, which until now has been at one with the US in its battle against terrorism, appealed for the civilian population to be protected. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, said the strike would also complicate the already difficult task of delivering food and medicine to the Afghan people before winter sets in.

Mujaoor, a guard who survived, said: "We were asleep and it was early morning when the building was hit. Four of my colleagues have been killed and I have a head wound."

Mohammed Afzi wept as he looked on. "My brother is buried in there," he said. "What can we do? Our lives are ruined."

Dr Shah Wali, an official with the ATC, said: "You see what has collapsed in the bombardment? This is a civilian area and they have killed four of the guards of this building. We are linked to a demining agency and our goal is to free Afghanistan from the menace of mines. The Americans have missed their target."

Last night, the victims were buried in the presence of hundreds of mourners in a cemetery crammed with the graves of Afghans killed in 23 years of war. A relative of one said: "They were good friends with each other and now they are buried next to each other as well."

Yesterday morning, after the raids had finished, shabby, poverty-stricken families hauled themselves out of the basements where they had spent a second sleepless night trying to shut out the noise of explosions. Some of them gathered their most valuable possessions, stuffed them into sacks and headed out of town.

One resident said: "Only God knows what has happened. I must leave. I would prefer to sleep under the sky than stay in the city another night."

Yet there has not been a great exodus from Kabul since the start of the raids. After the attacks of 11 September, people poured out of Kabul to the east, in the direction of the Pakistan border. Now the attacks have started, the majority has decided to carry on as normal.

One reason may be, as the Americans insist, that they have focused tightly on strategic targets – "Television Mountain," for example, so called because it houses a Taliban telecommunications tower, and the airport, in the north-west. Perhaps the people of Kabul have decided that the destruction of the ATC building was a strange mistake. What is more likely, though, is that while the threat of attacks may have induced panic, the reality of attacks is so familiar that it is almost like the good old days. Kabul has not suffered regular bombardment since the Taliban seized control in 1996, and that is one of the few tangible blessings their rule has brought. Before that, however, and especially during 1992 and 1993, when the mujahedin were at each other's throats, attack by artillery shells and rockets was incessant.

That was when Kabul, formerly an elegant and sophisticated and in many ways quite modern city, began to acquire its grey, haggard, wasted appearance: rows of buildings teetering on the verge of collapse (they are still teetering eight years on); fields of rubble; factories smashed to pieces; and the country reduced to penury.

Since 1996, Kabul has emerged from that nightmare of daily death and destruction, and the sound of shells exploding on the front line with the Northern Alliance a few miles north of the city has been harmless background noise.

The Taliban brought Kabul a sort of peace. But they were also an occupying force, even though they were Afghans like the residents of the city. They were an army of fanatical bumpkins who needed Kabul because it was the capital, but they hated and feared its modernity, and stamped down its emancipated women and smooth-chinned, jeans-wearing men. They inhabited the place as if they expected at any moment the battle for the city to resume. They roared through the streets at reckless speed, crammed into flashy Japanese pick-ups imported from the Gulf; they strode in surly, boorish gangs into the city's remaining restaurants.

In the government ministries, the real work, such little work as got done, was done by people who were hangovers of the old regime who had changed their clothes and stopped shaving. The Taliban sat to one side, proud and suspicious, alert for religious infringements. At least one senior Taliban official – in the office where foreigners were issued with exit visas – was illiterate.

One finds oneself writing about them in the past tense already: with hindsight they never attained the wherewithal of permanence in the city, and never made their peace with the place. Most citizens of Kabul will be delighted to see them go, if they go. Yet if they take their very imperfect peace with them, a return to the terrors of 1992 would be far, far worse.