Expats fortified against Kabul's grim reality: Raymond Whitaker finds the Afghan capital's diplomatic quarter caught between two fires

IT EXPLAINS a great deal about Afghanistan that the diplomatic quarter of Kabul is named after Wazir Akbar Khan, the man who murdered the British Resident below the Bala Hissar fortress 150 years ago.

The Bala Hissar remains a massive 19th century presence on one of the many peaks that dot the capital, though it has been rebuilt. Wazir Akbar Khan, on the other hand, is a testament to 1960s ferro-concrete design. Its box-like houses, each surrounded by a high wall, would be ideal protection against the high explosive currently flying about the city were it not for the fashion for picture windows prevailing when it was built. They have all had to be covered with shatter-proof plastic and blocked out with sandbags. Those are the downstairs rooms: upper storeys are unusable because of the bullets that regularly fly in.

Wazir Akbar Khan is hard against Bibi Maroo ridge, which is occupied by President Burhanuddin Rabbani's government forces. The Bala Hissar and Monument Hill, each less than two miles from Bibi Maroo, are held by the Uzbek militia of Abdul Rashid Dostam, who once sided with President Rabbani but is now trying to force him out. The two sides pour fire into each other from tanks, howitzers, rocket-launchers and machine guns for several hours each day, and what was once the most desirable district of the city is caught in the middle. Apart from projectiles which fall short, the anti-government forces regularly target Wazir Akbar Khan with salvos of rockets. Virtually every house has been hit several times, and those with basements are particularly in demand.

Despite this, Kabul's dwindling band of expatriates still clings to the quarter. Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has stayed while United Nations bodies have pulled out, and nearly all the journalistic corps live in one street just below the ridge. Their houses are easy to spot, since at night their generators make them isolated points of light in a blacked-out city. Walking from house to house as tracers shred the trees overhead, it is prudent to keep to the side of the street which screens the anti-government positions.

On Monday afternoon, the heaviest bombardment the city has suffered in several weeks was heralded by a rocket salvo on Wazir Akbar Khan. Two exploded inside one house occupied by a local family, but they were all out. A third landed inthe garden of another house, scattering the vegetables of a hawker outside but leaving him unhurt.

The pounding lasted until well after daybreak yesterday morning, but the residents of this quarter, with their satellite telephones and their copious supplies of 'Vitamin V' - code for vodka left behind from the Russian occupation - escaped relatively unscathed. Elsewhere in the phoneless, waterless, powerless capital, others were less lucky: at least 18 people were killed and more than 100 injured.

(Photograph omitted)