Forgotten war mirrors life in the Kabul zoo: Afghanistan's Islamic republic is collapsing into guerrilla anarchy. Tim McGirk reports

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THE Indian elephant was killed by a falling rocket a month ago. The caged pheasants were eaten by starving militia men. Families of monkeys wander wild through the bombed-out gardens. And yet a government meat-man appears daily to feed the two lions. This is Kabul zoo one year after Afghanistan became an Islamic republic.

To give some idea of how upside down the country is, consider that the lions' lunch, a 30kg carcass, costs more than a doctor earns for five months' treatment of the many casualties brought in from the daily bombardments of Kabul by rebel guerrillas.

Around the grassy lion pit, a gang of militia men - scraggly teenagers with assault rifles, and grenades dangling from their vest pockets - jeered at the lion's unsuccessful attempts to couple with the lioness. There was nothing better for the boys to do until darkness fell and the shooting began again. Since the zoo stands at a junction by the river, which three private armies use as a battleground, gunfire rakes across the menagerie where the two lions, a sickly tiger and two bears are all that survive.

This week the boys in the zoo are fighting Shia Muslims, of the Hizbe Wahadat group, holed up in the monolithic remains of the old Soviet cultural centre. But next week, depending on the shifting loyalties of their commanders, they could be firing across the empty road at the traffic school where the forces belonging to the defence minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud, have a machine-gun poking out from behind sandbags.

When nine guerrilla factions seized power in Afghanistan in April 1992, after a 14-year Islamic holy war against the communist regime in Kabul, nobody thought the country would settle down to peace immediately. The ethnic, tribal and personal rivalries among the various mujahedin chiefs were too venemous for that to happen.

Yet few could have foreseen the brutality that Afghans have inflicted on each other. One Kabul observer said: 'In one year, this country has fallen back to the 19th century. The difference is, they have 21st-century weapons.'

In Kabul alone, more than 3,000 people were killed and another 20,000 injured by rockets hurled down from the southern mountains by the rebel forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic radical, and his allies, the Shia Muslims, in the southern suburbs. Often the shells are fired blindly over a high ridge that shields Kabul from the rebel bases. Invariably, the casualties are civilians.

John Lane, of the Halo Trust, a British charity that clears mines and unexploded shells, said: 'Some areas look like Dresden. The other day, a rocket landed on the market. It killed 20 people. There were headless bodies lying there, and people just kept going about their shopping.'

The Islamabad peace accord of 7 March has created an absurd situation in which Mr Hekmatyar has become Prime Minister but does not dare to enter Kabul. Not only is he shelling the capital, but his guerrillas have also choked off the main supply road between Kabul and Pakistan. Petrol now costs pounds 4 a gallon, and tomatoes pounds 1.50 a kilo. The rebel commander also controls the hydroelectric plant that provides the city's power, and on the day of the republic's anniversary celebrations, when coloured lights were strung up all around the city, the Prime Minister ordered a black-out. Then Mr Hekmatyar issued an impossible demand for a lasting ceasefire: that his enemy, Mr Massoud, should resign as defence minister. Mr Massoud can gain nothing by complying. The other mujahedin leaders, at present having talks with President Burhanuddin Rabbani in Jalalabad, rely upon the defence minister to check Mr Hekmatyar's ruthlessness. There is talk that Mr Massoud and Mr Hekmatyar may share the defence post, but such a compromise is doomed to fail.

A wily strategist, Mr Massoud has moved heavy artillery on to the hills around Kabul so that he can flatten any advance the Hekmatyar forces may attempt. All that can defeat Mr Massoud is treachery, and in Afghanistan that is never in short supply.

In the meantime, a numbing anarchy reigns in Kabul. At the airport, under the control of the former communist General Abdul Rashid Dostam's unruly Uzbeks, planes leave their engines running for quick take-offs to prevent his militia men, some carrying machine-guns and others jerry-cans, from siphoning off the aircrafts' petrol to sell on the black market. One Afghan Airlines flight to Dubai had to be diverted to Peshawar when the pilot realised his tanks were almost dry.

Schools have been unable to open for a year, and festering rubbish, heaped in the alleys, is picked over by goats and hungry refugees. Families who fled the bombings are reduced to selling their few possessions on the roadside. The city was without water and electricity until three weeks ago, and citizens are hoarding food against the day that the Jalalabad talks inevitably break down and the rocketing resumes.

The central bank is shut to all except mujahedin commanders. On the streets, brick-sized bundles of Afghan currency are traded by hustlers for a few dollars or Pakistani rupees. The exchange rate depends on the intensity of the day's artillery fire or a flicker of optimism over the peace talks.

The tolerant face of Islam is not immediately evident in this new republic. Criminals are shot without trial or hung from primitive gallows on a knoll in Kabul's main park. Outside the post office, a banner proclaims: 'If a woman goes without a veil, her man is no good.'

With Afghanistan locked in civil war, few governments or international agencies have given Kabul any help. As one relief worker lamented: 'It's a forgotten war.'

(Photograph omitted)