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Student army fills Kabul with hope and dread


"Garoom! Garoom! Rocket!" shouted the old Afghan, pretending to fall to the earth as if he'd been killed. It was a perfect act, for the Afghan had plenty of experience of seeing how bodies flew when a rocket landed. Many relatives had perished in the hail of rockets that obliterated parts of Kabul during a two-year siege by renegade mujahedin.

The rocket attacks on Kabul stopped nearly two weeks ago, when a force of Islamic students known as the Taliban ambushed the rebels of Hezbi Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and sent them running down Kabul's icy ridges. The old Afghan said: "We hate rockets and guns. If these new people, the Taliban, give us peace, then we are with them."

With 2,000 Taliban fighters poised 8 miles outside the city and another 8,000 further south with more tanks and a dozen MiG fighters, many of Kabul's inhabitants look on the students with gratitude and dread. Because of Taliban, the Hezbi Islami rebels are in retreat. Because of the students, peace has descended on the city. The roads from the south are open, bringing badly needed food, medicine and blankets.

However, the Taliban might be next in the queue to pummel Kabul. Their leader, a one-eyed cleric, Mohammed Omar, claims his students have a divine mission to bring peace to Afghanistan by disarming warlords whose feuds have left over 20,000 Afghans dead in Kabul alone. President Rabbani refuses to give up his guns to the students. A confrontation looms.

In Kabul there are entire neighbourhoods where no buildings stand. The rubble has collapsed into the streets and only brick walls remain. If peace is not reached in Kabul between the warring mujahedin factions, it will not be long before the capital is too ravaged for Afghans to bother fighting over.

Like the houses, with their roofs, doors and windows blown away, the people of Kabul have been disfigured by war. Many lack limbs. They hobble through the debris, picking for anything that might be of use; a picture frame to burn for a few minutes of warmth, or a sheet of tin to shield them from the wind during the bitter nights.

Many of Kabul's 700,000 inhabitants have moved house several times in the siege, whenever the attackers switched the direction of their assault. The eastern and southern neighbourhoods are so badly shelled that many fled to the west, where they are crammed into metal shipping containers. Some live 16 to a classroom in an abandoned school. Bob McKerrow, a New Zealander who heads the Kabul delegation of the International ederation of the Red Cross, which is bringing in medicine and supplies, said: "Malnutrition is getting worse in Kabul. I've had mothers come up to me and tell me their milk has run dry. These mothers are having to feed their babies on bread and tea. There's nothing else." Relief agencies fear Afghanistan may become a forgotten war, neglected by the donor countries.

At the same time, new Mercedes speed through apocalyptic scenes that resemble Dresden after the bombing. These limousines were given to militia commanders by President Rabbani to buy their loyalty, but people in Kabul see the cars as symbols of the warlords' corruption.

Yesterday, relief workers arrived in old Kabul, a human anthill of mud houses hanging from a steep mountainside. They brought two lorries of blankets and plastic mats. The scramble for these items was so frenzied that one militiamen clubbed people with the end of a rocket-propelled grenade.

One woman, clutching a new plastic mat, was Qandi Ghul, 40, a widow with six children. A month ago, her husband thought it was safe to return to old Kabul. He was wheeling their few belongings on a cart when a rocket killed him.

"We have no money. No roof. Two of my children work in a bakery, earning 7,000 Afghans a day (£1.50). rom that, we must all live." The woman, lifting her veil to speak, added: "If the Taliban make it cheaper to buy a piece of nan bread, then let them come."

The Islamic traditionalism of the Taliban worries some Kabul women, many of whom had Western educations before the Communists and the mujahedin came to power. The Taliban is against women working or leaving their homes without a hejab, a long veil that covers the whole body except for the face.

irozan, 20, a graduate who supports 10 people in her family on the £60 a month she earns cleaning cups in an office, said: "I don't mind wearing a hejab. It goes with Islam and I feel relaxed wearing it with so many mujahedin roaming around. But if the Taliban won't let me work to feed my family, I don't know how we'll survive."