Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 22, 2001
Refugees fleeing Kabul say support for U.S. is fading

At War With Terror

NOWABAD, Afghanistan - As the American bombing campaign entered its third week yesterday, refugees flowing out of Kabul said the duration of the air campaign and the increased number of civilian casualties were beginning to undermine initial support for the American action.

"There's a lot of civilian casualties," said trader Mohammed, 25, who sat yesterday on a truck piled with cargo and a dozen refugees who had walked through Taliban lines. He said more than a dozen civilians were killed Friday night when a bomb struck Sarai Shamali, an informal marketplace in Kabul.

"I saw a lot of injured people," he said. "I'm a little worried; there are a lot of people angry and upset."

The accounts of refugees escaping to opposition-held northern Afghanistan could not be verified, but they affirm other reports of errant American bombs in Afghanistan's capital. An Associated Press reporter in Kabul yesterday counted at least seven dead in a midday bombing of two homes in the Khair Khana district of northern Kabul.

A man who gave his name only as Sayed sat crammed in a jeep yesterday with his wife, five children, and six other adults. He fled Kabul after a bomb struck too close to his house Saturday, even though the closest military installation is a mile from his home. His family escaped injury.

"It was very frightening," said the man, who had a long gray beard and wore a skull cap. "All the glass in the windows shattered, and all the doors came off their hinges.

"What can we say? It's a danger that God brings us. I blame Osama bin Laden and the United States. Both are the same."

The United States launched the air strikes on Oct. 7 against the radical Islamic Taliban regime for harboring Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, the chief suspects in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The comments from refugees this weekend were strikingly different from reactions during the first week of bombing, when a kind of euphoria swept through some Kabul neighborhoods that figured the air strikes signaled a quick exit of the loathed Taliban rulers. Most people fleeing to territory held by the United Front are sympathetic to the opposition, so their comments tend to be slanted against the Taliban.

"At first, the people thought bombing would be finished very soon and the Taliban would be gone," said Zalmay, a hotel owner who fled Kabul yesterday with his wife and five children. "On the contrary, the Taliban are gaining confidence. They announced at Friday prayers that the U.S. would be destroyed if they attacked on the ground, that they will defeat them like they defeated the Russians during the jihad."

Refugee officials for the Islamic State of Afghanistan, the government-in-exile that the Taliban ousted from Kabul in 1996 and that still claims to be Afghanistan's legitimate government, said about 5,000 people fled Kabul in the last week for territory held by the opposition United Front. The number is smaller than the number of Taliban supporters who are fleeing to Pakistan.

As the refugees spoke yesterday along a dirt road leading from Taliban front lines, the explosions of American bombs striking Kabul seemed like distant thunder to the south. Later in the day, U.S. warplanes streaked high over Jabal Saraj heading due south toward Kabul, causing residents in the crowded marketplace to crane their necks and point skyward at the roaring aircraft.

While the bombing seemed a remote presence from opposition-held territory, the Kabul refugees described the fear of feeling the earth shake from bombs hitting targets in their neighborhoods.

"One bomb hit the military club about 200 meters from my house on Friday," said Sayed Mirzar, 30, an auto mechanic who left Kabul on Saturday to join his wife, who had fled the week before. "We thought the bomb fell in our own house, it was so loud."

Some Kabul residents who escaped to this dusty stretch of desert 25 miles north of the capital were dimly aware that American Special Forces troops had staged two raids in southern Afghanistan, but they had only heard the Taliban version of events, in which the movement claimed to have shot down an American helicopter and to have killed more than 20 U.S. soldiers.

Many refugees said the Taliban soldiers were commandeering private residences in Kabul and staying there or in mosques at night to avoid staying at military installations that were more likely to be targeted by bombers.

Muhibullah, 26, a trader who carried a single handbag across the mountainous foot trail on Saturday and then paid $13 to be wedged into a jeep that drove him an hour to Golbahar, said that business had shut down in Kabul as the bombing campaign had driven much of the population underground or away from the capital.

He and others said that new recruits of Islamic fundamentalists from Pakistan had arrived to reinforce Taliban positions depleted by defections.

The new troops had apparently crossed the border without difficulty, despite Pakistan's promises to help the American effort to curtail terrorism.

"The new troops arrive at night," said Muhibullah, who, like many pro-opposition ethnic Tajiks, holds strong anti-Pakistan views. "On the one hand, Pakistan says they're against terrorism. On the other hand, they continue to support it."

He and others say they believe that Pakistan is tipping off the Taliban about the American bombing schedule so that they avoid the brunt of the air strikes.

"The bombing doesn't bring peace," Muhibullah said. "If this continues, the Taliban will remain in power. As long as Pakistan is involved, there will be no peace for Americans and Afghanistan."

Muhibullah spoke as he ate a lunch of mutton kebabs at a caf in Golbahar, where he planned to catch a bus to his hometown, Panjshir. It was in Panjshir in 1982 that a Soviet bomb fell on a mujaheddin ammunition dump next to his family house, causing an explosion that killed Muhibullah's father, grandfather, two sisters and three cousins. Muhibullah, then 7, lost two fingers on his right hand and was blinded in the right eye.

Since the Soviet pullout in 1989, Muhibullah has survived rocket attacks in Kabul when mujaheddin factions fought over control of the capital in the early 1990s.

He lived through Taliban shellings of Kabul before it fell in 1996.

And now he has escaped American bombings of Kabul.

"I'm accustomed to bombing," he said. "It's very sad how many bombs have been dropped on us. It never seems to do any good. It's depressing." home page   
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