Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 12, 2001
Kabul refugees tell of an unraveling city
After escaping over the mountains, they offered a glimpse of the chaos. The Taliban is unseen, they maintain. 

At War With Terror

NOWABAD, Afghanistan - After four nights of U.S. bombardments in Kabul, refugees from the city said yesterday that Taliban militants had practically disappeared from the streets of the capital but that normal daytime routines continued.

The refugees, who escaped by foot over mountains to opposition-held territory, said that while the barrage of American missiles and bombs was frightening, the air strikes appeared to be largely confined to military targets and that few civilians were injured.

"They're bombing the enemy, and it's my enemy, too," said Kandagho, 25, a driver who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. "The United States is doing the right thing."

The Taliban claimed that at least 115 people had been killed in overnight strikes late Wednesday and early yesterday, including 100 in a village near Jalalabad and 15 who died when a missile hit a mosque in that northeastern city.

No independent confirmation of the Taliban claims was possible.

Refugees flowed yesterday out of Kabul, providing a glimpse of a city beginning to unravel under the steady blow of bombs.

"The bombs were coming very close," said a 36-year-old man whose family lived next to Kabul's hard-hit airport. "We were frightened, so we left."

The air raids resumed for a fifth night last night. On a clear, starlit night, explosions of white and orange followed by distant thuds appeared on the horizon 40 miles to the south of Jabal Saraj, the main town on the front line between the Taliban and fighters of the Northern Alliance.

Though unnerved by the bombing, nearly all the refugees expressed support for the U.S. government's attacks against the militant Islamic Taliban movement, which harbors terrorism suspect Osama bin Laden. Their view may be representative only of the small number of Afghans seeking refuge in territory controlled by the opposition, rather than the larger population of Afghans who have fled to other countries or stayed behind.

"It's a very, very good thing the Americans are doing by only bombing military installations," said a 66-year-old man who escaped with his nephew's family. "The U.S. should continue this until the Taliban leave."

The accuracy of the American cruise-missile strikes and bombing runs is crucial to maintaining support for the international coalition assembled to fight terrorism. Most Afghans in opposition-held territory have said they support the attacks, as long as civilians are spared.

Most of the refugees who escaped Kabul yesterday have family or homes in the Panjshir Valley, a stronghold of the Northern Alliance. After a two-hour hike over a mountain, the refugees were greeted only by taxis charging $12 per person for a lift into Jabal Saraj, with as many other people as could possibly fit into a truck.

Pierre Junod, a representative of the International Red Cross Committee in Golbahar, said the relief agency was reluctant to conduct widespread distributions of food to refugees out of fear that handouts might induce a mass exodus from Kabul.

The refugees carried few belongings as they made the daylong trek, taking two or three taxi rides to a point on the Taliban side of a sharp ridge that hides a smuggling route. Two hours down the trail, the asylum seekers emerged on the edge of Northern Alliance territory - a stark plain strewn with boulders and whipped by a fierce, dust-laced wind.

Suraya, a 26-year-old Kabul woman whose burqa veil billowed wildly in the powerful gusts, said she decided to leave with her brother, sister-in-law, and their seven children after bombers destroyed a radar installation near her home.

"We lived with the Taliban, but we had a very bad life there," she said.

She had held off taking the arduous overland trip because she thought the Taliban might reopen one of the roads out of Kabul to the north. Unable to afford the carfare, she and her family set off on foot to hike 15 miles down a dusty road to Jabal Saraj. They carried a bundle of clothing, a brass teapot and a water jug.

"We want to finish this conflict," she said of Afghanistan's 23-year civil war. "We are tired."

She and other refugees said the Taliban militiamen, who took Kabul in 1996, had virtually disappeared from the city in recent days as bombing targeted military and government installations, such as the radio station and the television station.

"There are very few Taliban left," said Ahmed, 37, a former employee in the Foreign Ministry until he was sacked by the Taliban. "Most of them have gone into hiding or were taken out to the front lines."

"Just this morning, as we left Kabul, we didn't see any Taliban," said a 60-year-old woman. "It used to be difficult to travel about without encountering them."

Almost all of the refugees who made it into Northern Alliance territory were ethnic Tajiks, the majority in this area but the second-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Ethnic Pashtuns, the nation's largest ethnic group, with ties to the Pakistan government, make up the leadership of the Taliban.

Most Afghans here said they resented Pakistan's efforts to control Afghanistan's government.

"The problem is that the foreigners have come to occupy Afghanistan," Kandagho said. "They're taking over the good buildings, and they forced out good working people."

His neighbor, Mirzada, was one of a dozen people packed in a van to escape the Taliban. "The Americans are wrong to be bombing," he said. "They should be bombing Pakistan." home page   
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