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Asylum inmates left to suffer and die: One man is trying to save patients at a Kabul mental hospital from starvation and marauding guerrilla bands

THE madness of the current Afghan war is nowhere more evident than at the Marastun mental asylum in Kabul's southern suburbs. Fierce battles were fought by rival guerrilla armies inside its walls, with deranged inmates sunning themselves while rockets fell from the sky.

It is not a sane place to be. That is why the doctors and nursing staff of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, which runs Marastun, fled eight months ago and abandoned all 160 inmates. A few lucky patients were reclaimed by their families. Some wandered out of the battered asylum gate and strayed on to the main road, which government militia and rebels had made into a shooting gallery.

Still other inmates remained inside Marastun, alone and unprotected. They scavanged for grains of rice and drank sewer water. Marauding guerrillas stripped the madmen of their clothes, looted their few belongings, stole their meagre food provisions and raped the women patients. Most of the mujahedin are tribal warriors hardened by 14 years of combat, first against the Soviet Union and now against each other. Before coming to Kabul many of them had never seen a woman without a burqa, an ankle-length veil worn in the villages.

It has become customary for gangs of mujahedin to come up from their training camp at a nearby orphanage and stroll through the women's wing of the asylum. They taunted an old woman who sat on a windowsill, naked, with long, drooping breasts. In her lap she fingered a twisted piece of cloth, a skirt, perhaps, as though she had been defeated by the simple endeavour of dressing. Next, the gang drifted into a bare, dark dormitory where they ripped the blanket off a woman, dishevelled and cowering in bed. For the mujahedin it was all hilarious, like a first trip to the zoo.

Testimony of the rapes comes from several watchmen and the blind and war wounded who have also taken refuge in the blasted-out buildings inside the Marastun compound. 'It was shameful,' said one blind man, Mohammed Saghari. 'They came into our rooms at night. First they stole my cassette, my clothes and my blanket, then they dragged us outside into the garden - it was winter - and told us not to move. Then they brought in the women, screaming. They took the women into the rooms of the blind people and raped them. Many times the mujahedin would come in the night and rape them. What could we do?' asked the blind man, helplessly. 'They had guns.'

The torment of the Marastun inmates began soon after the nine Islamic guerrilla factions seized power in April 1992 from the Communist regime. The guerrillas swiftly fell to quarrelling among themselves and Kabul was carved into warring neighbourhoods. The Afghan Red Crescent provided shelter in the Marastun mental institute for war refugees and the blind as well. Its cover of trees, its solid buildings and vantage point on a hill, however, made it a prime military objective when fighting broke out between forces led by the Defence Minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and the rebels who captured the neighbourhood around the asylum.

Not long after the fighting flared, the government sent word to Kaka Wali, a watchman, to hide the inmates in a safe place because that evening the militia were going to lay siege to the asylum. Mr Wali, with the asylum's barber and cook, herded the patients into a cellar. 'But when the soldiers found us in the basement, they thought we were the enemy and began shooting. We were trapped,' said Mr Wali. A woman and her son were killed before the militiamen realised their blunder.

In April, a rocket fell into one of the courtyards, killing 12 mental patients. 'We try to drag them inside when there's fighting, but they just don't care,' said the watchman. He and the barber and cook buried the dead against the courtyard wall. Even the inmates who are murderously insane shun that side of the courtyard.

For two months, the surviving 52 inmates had only a cupful of rice to eat every few days. The other food stocks left by the Afghan Red Crescent were stolen by the mujahedin. 'There was no food, no medicine. Everybody was sick. It was really the lowest point of human life imaginable,' said the blind man. Armed gangs preyed on them. One boy, who came to Marastun after stepping on a mine which tore off his leg and blinded him, said: 'They accused me of being a Communist, but I wasn't. I was only a shepherd. They knocked me over and stole my clothes.'

In late April word of the Marastun inmates' plight reached Dr Armin Kobel, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul. He arranged for essential supplies of rice, potatoes and bandages to be brought across the battle lines to the asylum. But these too were stolen. The inmates seemed doomed.

But then, in what is probably the only democratic exercise that Afghanistan has seen in many years, the miserable inhabitants of Marastun held a vote. Two weeks ago, they elected a half-blind beggar, Mohammed Nassem, as their leader. With a few of the stronger inmates, he cleared an irrigation sluice so the asylum would have clean water. He dresses the patients' wounds. He found a safe place to store the Red Cross food, and now every day at least the inmates can eat potatoes, which are peeled by a crazed woman with cataracts in her eyes and hair like snakes. She never lets go of her knife.

Mr Nassem says modestly of himself that he is 'only half a man'. He has left the asylum because he feared that the mujahedin would rape his young wife, but every morning he walks a perilous six miles back to the asylum across the front line. The Afghan Red Crescent has been shamed into paying him a salary: pounds 3 a month. When asked why he was helping the inmates, Mr Nassem replied: 'The doctors, the nurses, nobody else cares for them any more. I'm the only person who can help.'

(Photograph omitted)