Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 21, 2001
Afghans say losses bearable if U.S. bombs usher in peace 

At War With Terror

Mirza Mohammed at the wreckage that was his house before the US bombing campaign.

KABUL, Afghanistan - The bomb came from the sky without warning in the middle of the night, engulfing Mirza Mohammed's house with flame, turning the sleeping occupants' dreams into nightmares.

"When the bomb hit this place, the entire house collapsed and there was only dust and confusion," said Mohammed, 38, the eldest of five brothers whose families lived in separate rooms of the mud-brick dwelling their father built 20 years ago.

The intended target of the bomb, dropped in the first week of the U.S. air campaign in Afghanistan, was Kabul International Airport, a few hundred yards away. Where Mohammed's house stood, there now is an eight-foot-deep crater. He says it is a miracle only two died and 25 were injured.

Perhaps more of a miracle is Mohammed's attitude.

"It doesn't matter that two people in my family died," he said. "I will give this house as a gift to the United States if we have a lasting peace. We want to thank W. Bush for helping get rid of the bearded Taliban.

"But," he added, "if peace doesn't come, I'll be upset with him and the United States."

With the Taliban on the run this week, victims of stray bomb strikes in Kabul express remarkably little bitterness. Their benevolence has a condition, however: The price for all the lost lives and lost limbs is a durable peace. Almost all expressed hope that the United Nations would send an international security force until Afghanistan could create a broad-based government.

While the U.S. bombing campaign caused substantial numbers of unintended casualties, it appears to have killed fewer civilians in Kabul than either the Taliban or initial news reports suggested.

In a spot check of 12 stray-bomb sites in Kabul in recent days, witnesses said 29 people died. A dozen others were said to have died when a bomb fell Oct. 19 at Sarai Shamali, an informal market in northern Kabul.

While far from a comprehensive assessment of stray bombs, the reports of casualties by eyewitnesses at most sites were lower than commonly believed here or reported by humanitarian agencies.

A reporter who witnessed the aftermath of an Oct. 21 bomb strike in the northern Kabul district of Khair Khana saw seven bodies removed. At the time, a hospital doctor said 13 died. Care International, which made an incomplete assessment while the Taliban was still in power, said 18 were killed.

Survivors said the actual death toll was nine.

"It has been 30 days since this happened and I don't feel like a human," said Gul Makai, 35, a widow who lost her son, Sardar Mohammed, 20, as he prepared to go to market with a wheelbarrow of fruit. "He was the breadwinner for this family and now we have nothing."

Care also said that 12 people died when a wedding party was struck by a bomb last month near the Macroryan housing complex. Witnesses said the actual count was five.

The Taliban claimed two weeks ago that 1,500 Afghan civilians had been killed. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, while expressing regret for civilian deaths, called the Taliban claims "fiction." The British Defense Ministry said no more than 300 died nationwide.

Even when the bombing campaign is over, it may be impossible to get an exact figure of what military officials used to call "collateral damage."

No international agencies kept an independent count because the Taliban would have interpreted such work as gathering military intelligence, said Pascal DuPort, deputy head of the International Committee for the Red Cross in Afghanistan.

"People weren't taking bodies to hospitals or government, but burying them very quickly," he said. "It's very difficult for anyone to know how many died and how many were wounded."

The U.S. bombing campaign was far from perfect. Twice, the Red Cross warehouse was struck - which the Red Cross still cannot comprehend because the site is nowhere near military targets and, the agency contends, there were no armed men hiding under its symbol. The U.S. government apologized for the bombs, which injured one guard.

And an unknown number of unexploded bombs still lie around Kabul. In the neighborhood of Ben-e-Hassar, where U.S. bombers hammered Taliban positions, pieces of bomb caromed nearly a mile. A two-foot chunk of one came to rest against the wall of a house, its inch-thick steel casing still holding gray puttylike explosives, which children scooped out and used for starting fires.

"It's dangerous," said Najibullah, 40, a teacher. "Can you get it removed?"

Anger about the stray bombs is suppressed now that the Northern Alliance controls Kabul, but Abdul Mobeen, 36, a shop owner whose leg was injured by shrapnel in the Oct. 19 bomb in Sarai Shamali, said people were hostile toward America at the time.

"Tell your pilots they should hit their targets," Mobeen said Monday as he lay in Wazir Akbar Khan hospital, still recovering from his month-old injuries.

Residents here said the bombs were more accurate in the first week of the air campaign, which began Oct. 7, when the targets - large military bases, the airport, radar and communications installations - were obvious. But as the Taliban sought safety in residential neighborhoods, bombs began to go astray, they said.

"Some of us thought they were mistakes," said Shakir Pardis, 38, a teacher whose middle-class house in the Sharie Nad district was wrecked by a strike Oct. 17 at his front door. "Others thought maybe the pilot lost somebody in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon and deliberately bombed civilian targets to take revenge, and then just said it was a mistake."

Some Kabul residents were surprised at the depth of U.S. intelligence. Aircraft fired laser-guided rockets at specific houses in crowded neighborhoods that residents were only vaguely aware contained Arab and Pakistani militants sympathetic to Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We were amazed at the accuracy," said Mohammed Alem, a carpenter from the Qasabale-Kargere housing complex near the airport, where the tarmac and surrounding grounds are littered with aircraft fuselages scattered like broken pencils. Two stray bombs fell in a field near the housing complex, but they caused no casualties, contrary to reports in the city.

There was little expectation of personal compensation - this is a city where 50,000 people died during factional fighting between 1992 and 1996.

Pardis, whose grandfather built the house that was destroyed, said his pregnant wife survived despite being completely buried in the rubble. But she has become mentally unstable since the Oct. 17 blast.

"If I could afford to rebuild this house, I'd say it was worth it to get rid of the Taliban," Pardis said. "Now I just have no house."

But there was an expectation of collective compensation - that the international community would not ignore Afghanistan as it did a decade ago after Afghan Islamic warriors defeated the Soviet Union and then destroyed what was left of the country as they struggled for supremacy among themselves.

In the Khair Khana neighborhood, populated primarily by ethnic Tajiks who might be sympathetic to the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance that swept into Kabul last week, hardly anyone expressed confidence that the alliance could govern the country alone.

"If things are left in the hands of these leaders, then we won't get peace," said Tawoos, 30, a carpenter who lives near the site where the nine people were killed. Like many Afghans, he uses one name.

Tawoos and some of his neighbors went to the Taliban government last month after the Khair Khana bomb knocked out electricity to six houses. They were turned down by bureaucrats who seemed to know the end of their tenure was near.

"The Taliban said: 'Wait for the Americans. They're coming soon, and they'll fix it.' " home page   
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