Victorious warlords fight to the death over ruins of Afghanistan: George Alagiah reports from Kabul on the conflict destroying the city

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The Independent Online
THIS is the last place on earth you would choose to set up a refugee camp, a boulder-strewn wasteland east of the city of Jalalabad. The brightness of the day belies the freezing night-time temperatures. There is not a tree in sight, nothing to break the onslaught of an Afghan winter.

What nature has made bloody, man has made murderous. Every day for the past six weeks someone - usually a child - has been maimed by the landmines which litter this plain, left from Afghanistan's earlier war against communism.

Yet since Pakistan closed its borders to refugees last month, those fleeing the recent fighting in Kabul have had little choice but to gather here.

There are 50,000 so far. They arrive at the rate of about 100 families a day. Said Ali is among them. Even after his son was killed he thought he might be able to hang on in Kabul. A stray rocket put an end to any prevarication: 'It had taken years to save the money to build that house,' he said. 'I built it with my own hands. And then in a flash it was all gone. I never believed one could be so sad.'

For 12 years the mujahadin forces of Afghanistan, with the abundant help of the CIA, fought the combined might of the communist regime and the 100,000 Soviet troops sent in to prop it up. It took a decade of war to win the right to take up government in Kabul: in the 20 months since then, the victors, turning on each other, have caused more destruction in the city than in the whole of the earlier conflict.

There have been several bouts of intercenine violence. The latest began on New Year's Day. A short drive down the Jadayi Maiwand shows just how vicious the fighting has been. Once it was one of Kabul's oldest commercial centres; today it is an avenue of rubble, running along the frontline between warring factions. The streetfighting that marked the first few days of the battle soon gave way to rocket and mortar fire. The destruction is comprehensive.

Amid the debris is the odd reminder that people once worked and lived here: a twisted pile of aluminium buckets is all that remains of the ironmonger's; a pile of personal effects, on what is left of the pavement, suggests someone who knew it was time to leave but never made it.

Huge swathes of the city are simply empty. When there is a lull in the fighting there is a desperate dash to gather belongings and head out of town. You can now hire barrows for the purpose. The children push from behind, their galoshes slipping in the melting snow; the man, in front, pulling much more than he can cope with.

Few of these families are complete: someone is always left behind, someone who's dead. Nearly 1,000 people have been killed in the most recent battles, and probably 10 times that many wounded, according to the International Red Cross.

'We start getting ready for the arrivals as soon as we hear the shells land,' says Dr Said Qadir, one of six surgeons at the Karte Se clinic. 'Some times we work 24 hours a day, non-stop. These fighters use every kind of weapon - mortars, rockets, grenades and of course, the Kalashnikov. For us it is the same - another innocent caught in the middle.'

And there is no shortage of weapons - over a decade of superpower rivalry has seen to that. This was a Cold War battleground like no other. But intense as the West's interest was then, the international community is conspicuous by its absence in the current crisis. The blue flag still flaps above the United Nations office but the Secretary-General's special envoy left for Pakistan soon after the first bullets were fired.

The UN's absence is regretted, not only by the aid workers and international agencies that are left in Kabul but by the government. 'We have always made it clear that the UN has a role here,' said Ahmed Shah Massoud, commander of the government forces. 'We would prefer it if they were here to do their job but they are in Islamabad. You have to ask them if that is the best place to be.'

All the UN has done with any consistency is to protect former president Najibullah. The communist leader sought refuge in the UN compound when his attempt to flee the country was blocked and has stayed there ever since, looked after by one of the UN's local staff. Afghanis draw their own conclusions.

Certainly, there are grave misgivings about the kind of advice the UN might be receiving from Islamabad. Pakistan, even under Benazir Bhutto, is not seen as neutral. 'When Bhutto came to power we were told that Pakistan's intelligence services would no longer interfere but so far we have seen little sign of a change,' said Massoud. They played a key role as a conduit for American support in the Eighties and few believe they have relinquished their interest in Afghanistan. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is fighting the government now, is thought to be the main beneficiary.

The government also suspects Uzbekistan is helping Hekmatyar's ally, Abdul Rashid Dostam. Dostam's forces had recently received 30 T62 tanks from the Uzbeks, according to Massoud. He believes Dostam's air force - planes once flown by the communist regime - is now serviced at Tarmaz airbase on the border.

One talks of a 'government' because that is the form claimed by those who control Kabul. One day those factions who agreed to rule the country in coalition might give up even the pretence of trying to form a government and the country could break up into warring fiefdoms.

For many, Afghanistan has already ceased to exist as a nation. More than 5 million fled its borders during the war. Now, hundreds of thousands have been made homeless in this latest round of conflict.

(Photograph omitted)