February 19 1990



February 19 1990




When a nine-year-old boy called Faizer-mad tells the story, his expressions range from a sheepish grin to grimaces of pain. All his life, Faizer-mad said, he has eagerly awaited summers at his home in northwestern Afghanistan. With the warmer weather, he said, “I could go play wherever I wanted.” He ignored repeated warnings from his mother to stay near their house because of periodic fighting between Afghan government troops and the rival U.S.-backed Mujahedeen rebels. Said Faizer-mad: “I hardly ever heard shooting.” And on a quiet day last September, he saw no reason to sidestep a small metal canister lying in a field near his home. The object, a partially buried mine, blew off both of his legs at the knees. Now, at an

International Red Cross rehabilitation centre in the capital city of Kabul, he is learning to walk with two prosthetic limbs. Said Faizermad, slowly shaking his head: “I am very sorry I was not careful as my mother wanted.” After 11 years of civil war, such brutal lessons remain a fact of life for Afghanistan’s children—and their elders.

Although this week marks the first anniversary of the Soviet troop withdrawal, many observers, and most Afghans, say that they remain deeply pessimistic about the country’s future.

Said Dr. Say et Alef Shah Gazanfar, the chairman of the faculty of biochemistry at Kabul University: “I fear we are becoming another Lebanon, eternally fighting among ourselves.” But not everyone shares that bleak view. During three days of meetings in Moscow last week, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker discussed measures aimed at reducing or eliminating the

huge arms shipments that their countries still supply to the rival Afghan sides. And in an effort to get peace talks under way, Baker dropped Washington’s insistence that Sovietinstalled Afghan President Najibullah step down as a precondition to a negotiated settlement.

Refugees: But despite those efforts, Afghanistan faces several catastrophic long-term problems. A recent UN report said that, because of Afghanistan’s poverty, widespread malnutrition and spread of contagious dis| eases, the life expectancy of ' its estimated 15 million people averages only 38 years. The report also said that 70 per cent of Afghan children under the age of 5 suffer from varying degrees of malnutrition. As well, more than five million Afghans are believed to have fled the war-tom country to Pakistan and Iran—a figure that makes them the largest refugee group in the world. Declared Dr. William Sugrue, a New Zealand surgeon serving with a Red Cross

After more than nine years of occupation, the final withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan on Feb. 15, 1989, reflected the changing face of Soviet policy under Mikhail Gorbachev. But one year later, little has changed in Afghanistan. On an eight-day visit that ended last week, Maclean’s Moscow Bureau Chief Anthony Wilson-Smith found a nation firmly in the grip of civil war. His report:

unit in Kabul: “Even if all the fighting stopped tomorrow, the work here would go on for at least another decade.”

Explosions: In fact, the prospects for a ceasefire appear equally gloomy. In a meeting with a small group of Western reporters in Kabul last week, President Najibullah declared, “The situation is changing in favor of peace.” But such assertions, and repeated government claims that it is repelling the Mujahedeen, appear to be based on more hope than fact. Signs of the intensity of the continuing conflict are visible all over the country.

In Kabul, where government control is strongest, reporters witnessed continuing daily rocket attacks by the rebels. In late January,

six people were killed and 122 were injured by a powerful car bomb that exploded in the downtown area. As well, airplanes landing and taking off from the city’s airport release flares and ascend or descend abruptly in a corkscrew motion. The reason, officials acknowledge, is to evade the heat-seeking U.S.-made Stinger missiles that the rebels use.

Similar problems exist in other areas where the government claims full control. In the northwestern province of Herat, bordering on Iran, Gov. Fazal Hak told Maclean ’s that there are fewer than 200 rebels now operating in the province. But minutes after he made his re-

marks, the sounds of explosions and gunfire were clearly audible from the outskirts of Herat’s capital city. Meanwhile, in the country’s second-largest city, Kandahar, government officials claim that more than 55,000 of an estimated 60,000 rebels operating in the area a year ago have laid down their arms. But dozens of government tanks and armored personnel carriers still protect major routes into Kandahar. And local residents told Maclean ’s that rocket attacks occur regularly, along with sporadic fighting on the city’s outskirts.

Still, the resilience of Najibullah’s Marxist regime has surprised many observers who predicted its collapse within weeks of the Soviet withdrawal last year. One reason for

Panigati, an Italian diplomat and Roman Catholic priest who has lived in Afghanistan for the past 25 years: “He is an intelligent man, and he does not bind himself in ideology.” Originally trained as a medical doctor, the 43-year-old Najibullah served in the early 1980s as the chief of Khad, the country’s widely feared secret police. Kabul is rife with unsubstantiated allegations that Najibullah ordered the killing and torture of political opponents. Those rumors are heightened by his menacing appearance: a heavy build, thick neck, pockmarked complexion and carefully groomed hair and moustache give him the look of an imageconscious professional wrestler. Said Panigati: “Najibullah has a problem—Afghans cannot

Najibullah’s political survival has been the infusion of an estimated $4 billion in supplies and munitions from Moscow. For its part, Washington supplied the rebels with an estimated $700 million in arms deliveries last year. But severe infighting between rival groups in the Mujahedeen resistance, which is composed of seven different religious and regional factions, has hampered their efforts. The groups include moderates and hard-line fundamentalist Moslems who have little tolerance for each other.

At the same time, observers say that Najibullah has ruled with a mixture of intimidation and shrewd political sense. Said Rev. Angelo

forget that he was head of the secret police.” Skepticism: In recent months, Najibullah has attempted to improve his image with a series of conciliatory gestures towards the Mujahedeen, who are fighting to depose the president and create an Islamic republic. Najibullah’s policy of what he calls “national reconciliation” involves an amnesty for rebels turning in their arms and a call for talks to form a coalition government. Najibullah said last week that he would like to stage elections monitored by the United Nations and to have Afghanistan declared a demilitarized zone. But he added that, even if the United States stops shipping

arms to the rebels, the Soviet Union should continue supplying weapons to his government unless the two sides declare a full ceasefire.

That proposal faces increasing resistance in Moscow, where there is a growing belief that the Soviet Union, beset by near-crisis economic conditions, cannot continue aid at its present levels. And many Soviets are increasingly expressing skepticism over their country’s involvement in Afghanistan. Last February, when their troops were withdrawn, Soviet media praised the “internationalist duty” of the soldiers.

But now, many Soviets condemn their country’s military adventurism, which resulted in 15,000 Soviet deaths. Recently, Soviet newspapers have published a stream of articles critical of the decision by former leader Leonid Brezhnev to send in troops in December, 1979, to prop up Afghanistan’s Marxist government. Said Artyom Borovik, a journalist at the weekly magazine Ogonyok who frequently accompanied Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan: “We agonize over this the way Americans did over Vietnam.”

Frustration: The animosity many Afghans clearly feel towards the Soviet Union is evident even in Kabul, which has been the largest recipient of Soviet aid. Before their pullout last year, Soviet officers ordered their troops to restrict their shopping to the huge open-air market on bustling Chicken Street because Soviet soldiers were routinely being attacked in the poorly lit and winding lanes leading to smaller markets. Now, foreign visitors to the city find that residents welcome them warmly as soon as the outsiders establish that they are not Soviet. Said one Kabul shopkeeper in halting English: “People here think Russians are bastards.”

But many Afghans also express anger and frustration with the American government’s policy of supplying arms to the Mujahedeen. Government officials say that the rebels have been indiscriminately using American-made cluster rockets, which are two-stage missiles with a range of up to 34 miles. Those weapons are particularly lethal because they can be adjusted to explode in midair and scatter dozens of smaller explosives. Recently, a cluster rocket killed a 17-year-old girl and a 10-yearold boy in a residential area on the outskirts of Kabul. Said a 14-year-old girl named Nasrin, who survived the blast because she was behind a tree: “Everything was quiet, and then the world turned upside down.”

That is a sensation to which Afghans of all ages have become accustomed. Along with the dangers of rebel rocket attacks, government-

ordered air strikes and regular armed clashes, Western military experts estimate that there are at least 16 million still-undiscovered land mines buried across the country. As a result of mine explosions, there is a growing demand for prosthetic limbs from the Red Cross’s workshop in Kabul. In the past two years, the Red Cross has supplied more than 1,200 artificial

limbs to maimed Afghans, and 2,700 other people are on a waiting list. An estimated 30 per cent of the Red Cross patients are children. Said Jo Nagels, the program co-ordinator: “We keep producing more, but it is never enough.” Orphans: As a result, medical care is one of the country’s few rapidly expanding sectors. At a Red Cross hospital in another section of Kabul, a team of four Western surgeons sometimes works around the clock to keep space available in the 150-bed facility. Red Cross medical teams have also been flown into two other cities. A recently arrived UN group is now setting up 47 centres to distribute blankets, medical care and food supplies. As well, the Afghan government has ordered the medical faculty at Kabul University to increase sharply the number of students it accepts, although classes are already overcrowded. Said Dr. Hassan Baha of the facility: “We have too many students, and not enough of anything else.”

In fact, Kabul University provides another vivid illustration of the toll that 11 years of war

has wrought upon the country. In the early 1970s, its medical faculty frequently attracted visiting professors from other countries. The visitors kept both students and other teachers abreast of new medical techniques and often brought new equipment with them. But since the Soviet invasion in 1979, said the biochemistry department’s Gazanfar, “no one wants to come here, and most of those who can leave here do so as soon as they can.” The 63-yearold Gazanfar, who has studied and lectured at Harvard University in Massachusetts, said that he stays in Kabul because “if a person like Albert Schweitzer could go to Africa, it is a small sacrifice for a person like me to stay in my

homeland.” But, he admitted, he has found the experience deeply frustrating. Said Gazanfar: “At the end of my career, I will not be able to say I achieved all the things I could have.”

Some younger Afghans will face different frustrations in the future. The government-run Kabul Boys’ Orphanage houses more than 2,200 boys under 17. Directors of the orphanage say that none of them will be adopted because there are few families in the country with the means to care for them.

One of the youngest orphans is Kalin-dad, who will mark his second birthday next month. He has been at the orphanage for 11 months since a bomb hit his house and killed his parents during fighting in the city of Jalalabad. Kalindad cannot yet talk, and he cannot form a grip because of injuries to his hands by the bomb blast. But his doctor said: “He seems to remember. When he sleeps, he sometimes cries out and folds up to protect himself.” For Afghanistan’s troubled children, the first casualty of war is their peace of mind. □