Kabul camp uses prayer as a weapon: Some 10,000 Afghans have died since 1992 but gun-law still rules, writes Raymond Whitaker from Kabul

Click to follow
THE LAST sabbath of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, dawned freezing and wet yesterday in the Afghan capital, turning the courtyard at the Abdullah Ansar mosque into mud. Nearly all the children were coughing, and some were barefoot.

The men had crowded into the sanctuary, where Maulawi Mohammed Hussein was leading them in prayer. 'Allah, please come to Afghanistan,' he chanted. 'Stop this fighting, in which brother is killing brother. Only You know who is putting a match to petrol. Only You know how long we must suffer.'

More than 400 people made homeless by fighting in the old quarter of Kabul have fled to the mosque, which is in the relatively safe district of Khair Kana. Nearly half of them are crammed into the hall adjoining the sanctuary, where four families share each curtained- off enclosure. 'No Ramadan I have known has ever been worse,' said the 60-year-old Sunni mullah. 'We have no weapons to fight. We only have prayer.'

Depending on the moon, today or tomorrow will mark the beginning of Eid, the three-day festival which brings the season of dawn-to-dusk fasting to a close. In Afghanistan it is a time when employers pay bonuses, traditional mutton dishes are consumed at family feasts and tailors work overtime on orders for new clothes. For the people of Kabul, however, especially the 400,000 displaced by the most savage fighting the city has seen in more than 14 years of civil war, there will be little to celebrate.

'Every day is like Ramadan for us,' said one of the refugees. 'We have no food, no work and no money. During Eid all we can do is go to the mosque and pray.'

Mullahs of all the branches of Islam in Afghanistan struggle to offer consolation to their flocks. 'The Koran says you should not lose hope,' said Qari Karam Ali, a cleric of the minority Ismaili sect, which follows the Aga Khan. 'We pray to Allah to bless these armed people and soften their hearts. All Muslims are brothers. They should not start war against each other.'

More than 1 million people were killed during the jihad against the Communist regime, backed by Soviet troops, but since the mujahedin took over Kabul in April 1992, at least 10,000 people are estimated to have died in internecine struggles. 'Religious leaders have appealed to the mujahedin to make peace,' Mr Karam Ali said, 'but unless you have a gun, nobody listens to you in Afghanistan.'

Not every mullah is without influence. Hojatoleslam Mohammed Akbar Akbari, one of Afghanistan's leading Shia clerics, lives in a large house with a swimming pool, a Mercedes and several heavily armed bodyguards. He is a council member of Hizbe Wa hadat, the faction representing the traditionally downtrodden Shias, who make up about one- fifth of the population. Mr Akbari is considered a moder ate in the movement, which does not want to jeopardise its gains in Kabul and has stayed neutral in the present battles.

'This fighting which you see has nothing to do with Islam,' he said. 'Afghan people obeyed the order of Allah to defeat the previous regime, but some leaders have continued the war out of selfishness. It is one cause of the people turning away from Islam.'

Was this undermining respect for religious leaders? 'No - it is the political leaders who are losing respect. People are fed up with war.' Unlike other clerics, he placed little faith in outside intervention to stop the fighting: 'The solution has to come from within. If the people . . . have the will, we can do something.'

'We have one Muslim religion and one God,' Mr Hussein said. 'We should not have so many people fighting for power. They don't kill each other, they just kill ordinary people. We ask Allah for relief from this situation.'

A small bit of relief did reach Kabul this week, in the form of the first Red Cross food convoy since January.

After protracted negotiations, the International Committee of the Red Cross secured agreement to bring in a six-truck convoy, carrying 100 tons of food. The organisation says it has only enough supplies for the 50,000 people camping in mosques and other public buildings. The food is being stored in an area controlled by Hizbe Wahadat, and is to be distributed after Eid.