An Afghan Mosaic of Misery: Hunger, War and Repression

KABUL, Afghanistan, February
As snow melted on his cheeks, the tall, stout man-a father of seven-reached past the firm red apples on a vendor's pushcart and began to choose from the rotting ones, assessing the brown and the speckles and the mushiness. "People don't have money to buy the good ones," Aman Ullah said flatly. And then, as if to help him make the point, a whimpering old man fell to his knees and touched his forehead on Mr. Ullah's muddy boots, begging for a share of the spoiled fruit.

Rotten apples outsell the fresh ones in Afghanistan's capital, but that only begins to describe the poverty here, for even bad apples-sold at a penny a pound-are an extravagance in a city so overcome with tragedy and want. Each day, hundreds of thousands survive on nothing more than weak tea and handouts of bread. This woebegone nation is enduring its 21st straight year of war, unable to escape the malign shadow that geopolitics has cast on its history. Since it emerged as a force five years ago, the Taliban militia has conquered 80 to 90 percent of the country. But while the Taliban have brought a measure of security to the territory they control, including Kabul, the better part of their attention is focused on what they know best-the strategies of battle, not the burdens of government. Their tasks are made harder by the world's scorn. The Taliban are notorious for imposing a puritanical Islam that includes the head-to-toe sheathing of women and justice by amputation. Only three nations recognize them as Afghanistan's legitimate government. In November, the United Nations-at Washington's urging-imposed economic sanctions against the Taliban for their refusal to hand over their guest, the accused terrorist Osama bin Laden. The sanctions puzzle people here. Oddly enough, they come at a time when Taliban leaders are showing some signs of moderation. And while the restrictions may have only made a dismal winter a bit worse, they carry the sting of ill will. Afghans believe that others are reveling in their pain, smugly approving of a situation where hungry families huddle in bomb-ravaged buildings and children forage through the streets for firewood. "It's such an insidious thing, making people feel like pariahs, pushing them away from the world community," said Jolyon Leslie, the South African who is the United Nations' senior regional coordination officer for relief assistance in Kabul. "I keep reminding the Afghan people that the member nations voted the sanctions, not the U.N. staff. But this may be a difficult distinction for the people in the bread lines." Last week, Abdul Samad waited in one of those meandering lines. He is a teacher who earns the $6-a-month wage common to government employees. "The Taliban are like animals," he complained as friends cautioned him to be more discreet. "They have no respect for human rights. They rule at the point of a gun. They have no wisdom." To him, like many in the city, the Taliban are "they," some alien force, an occupying army whose men are largely undereducated, overzealous and mean. But as he stood in the punishing cold, Mr. Samad did not blame the Taliban for the hunger in his belly or the fits of coughing that afflict his six children. "The West had use for us when the Soviets invaded our land in 1979, when we were a front line in the cold war," he said, sounding at once boldly sarcastic and utterly defeated. "We were worth helping then. We are not so important now."

The United Nations sanctions banned flights to and from Afghanistan and froze all the government's assets held outside the country. The impact of those restraints is hard to measure, though it is probably just another jab to a country already reeling from body blows. More important, the sanctions further demonstrate a fundamental decision by the outside world that it is better to isolate the Taliban than to engage them-and this is something that angers people here as they teeter from one day to the next. "If you think a family member has gone mad, shouldn't you try to give him help through treatment, through talking?" asked Abbas Stanikzai, the deputy minister of public health and one of the Taliban's more skilled diplomats. "We may not be accepted by most nations, but we are still human beings. To want us to suffer is cruel." And the suffering is extraordinary.

An estimated 70 percent of the working age population of Kabul is jobless. For men, work is hard to find; for women, it is forbidden. Afghans in the countryside are thought to be better off; they can live off the land. In Kabul, there is nothing to reap from the dead factories or the shuttered stores. People sell their possessions on the street, their cooking utensils and their picture frames and their extra clothes. Competition is keen, customers few. At dusk, hundreds of women come outside to beg, desperate for a pittance before the 9 p.m. curfew. Dressed in the all-encompassing burkas, they look ghostly in the aqueous light of oncoming headlights. Older people recall a worldly Kabul, a city with fine wares and good restaurants and easy laughter. But the memories sometimes startle them, like the tingling in the stump of an amputee. An elderly carpet seller, Haji Abdul Hakim, began to weep and could not stop, thinking of days when he sipped tea with buyers from New York. "I have lived too long," he said. "I shouldn't have lived to see this." Half of the city's buildings are devastated. The entrance to the government's central bank is a hanging brown blanket. Kabul University's computer science department recently acquired its first computer, but there is no electricity. In many neighborhoods, the only water supply flows from curbside spigots that operate four hours a day. Some 15,000 refugees who fled last summer's fighting in the Shomali Plain have taken shelter in the compound of the long-abandoned Soviet Embassy. They live much like the many thousands of squatters throughout the sprawling urban detritus, their blankets spread over cold concrete and their makeshift cook stoves exhaling smoke. Imam Uddin, 62, has lived these last three years in a blind corner of rubble. He was wearing a lightweight coat over three sweaters and was eager to display the hardship of his meager home. But once inside he too began to sob. "This is for a dog to live like this," he said.

Last year's dry weather caused a poor wheat harvest, and neighboring Pakistan, with a scarcity of its own, has withheld exports. Each day, 400,000 people-about a fourth of Kabul's population-are given bread or wheat by the United Nations and the Red Cross and other charities. The United States is the largest donor country. Mr. Uddin has lost his identification papers, and is thus ineligible to receive food from the aid groups. He earns his daily bread by acting as a stand-in for others in the lines, trading his time in exchange for a few bites from the flat loaves he collects. "Our bread program," said Karina Schmitt of the United Nations' World Food Program, "used to be an income transfer, allowing people to buy other things to eat, but for most of these people the bread now seems to be all they have." Amid Afghanistan's long run of grief, gathering reliable statistics has become impossible. The population is variously estimated between 18 million and 24 million. In 1996, the last time the United Nations included it in its surveys, Afghanistan was near the bottom in every social indicator. More than one in four children died before the age of 5. Average life expectancy was 44 years. Literacy was 30 percent. The Soviet invasion in 1979 opened the trapdoor that Afghanistan fell through. Resistance fighters-the mujahedeen-were given billions in the latest lethal weapons by the United States and Saudi Arabia. In 1989, the Soviets made an ignoble retreat, and many presumed that Afghanistan would right itself. Instead, age-old ethnic rivalries and simple avarice turned one mujahedeen group against another. The fight for freedom was replaced by civil war.

Kabul became a main battleground, and peace did not return to the city until the Taliban arrived in September 1996. This new militia was made up largely of Pathan students from religious schools popular with refugees and the poor. They were welcomed by the masses who saw them as an overdue answer to the prevailing lawlessness. But the price for this semblance of peace was paid with forfeited rights. The Taliban refused to allow women to work. They banned girls
from schools. They whipped or imprisoned anyone who defied their strict dress codes. They outlawed television and popular music. This pious wrath was far too extreme for most others to accept. And aid agencies working in Afghanistan criticized the Taliban as impossibly obstinate. Recently, however, many of those criticisms have become tempered. "We've painted such a bleak picture of Afghanistan that nobody in their right mind wants anything to do with it," said Mr. Leslie of the United Nations. "But there is a transformation going on within the Taliban, and we'd do better by stepping off the high ground to meet them in the middle. This country was in decline long before the Taliban."

There are signs of moderation. Most significantly, about 10,000 girls in Kabul have been allowed to attend schools in mosques or private homes. The classes are financed by aid groups, including one headed by a German, Peter Schwittek. "The Taliban are a very heterogeneous movement," he said, chosing his words carefully. "They are not united about the treatment of women or education for girls." He offered an example: In 1998, he was approached by some of the clergy who wanted to offer their mosques as schools for both boys and girls. Approval had been won from the Ministry of Education. But once classes began, the minister of Islamic affairs took umbrage and raised objections; he ruled that while it was O.K. for girls to read, they should not be permitted to write. He wanted their pencils and notebooks taken away. "But the ministry's second deputy was on our side, and he made a little trick," Mr. Schwittek said. "He told me, 'I will invite the minister to a class and have a girl write a religious statement on the blackboard. Then we will ask: Tell us what is wrong with this.' " Interestingly, that second deputy was al-Haj Maulavi Qalamuddin, who had been considered infamously harsh when he was head of the Taliban's moral police force known as the General Department for the Preservation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. "Of course, there are differences of opinion within any movement," said Mr. Qalamuddin, whose thick black beard is striking even in a country where facial hair is mandatory. He spoke with prudence and demanded precise translations from Pashto. "Don't conclude that differences of opinion mean there are opposing forces. We all receive our guidance from Allah."

Undoubtedly, there are some cleavages, but observers of the Taliban disagree about their extent. Some believe that the movement will implode, with the next phase of Afghanistan's interminable warfare involving one Taliban faction against another. At the same time, there are many in Kabul who mock the very idea that the Taliban are easing away from their harsh interpretations of Islamic law. "If in public I show my face or a hair on my head, I will be beaten," said a woman named Nadera, a former teacher who took the forbidden risk of speaking to a man who was not her relative. "To talk of moderation is to miss the essential tyranny." Indeed, optimism may be a luxury available only to those with some means of escape from here. Otherwise, the pigments of life have turned to gray in Kabul. At the zoo, there is an old blind lion named Marjan, and his story seems a metaphor for the city itself. Once, there were 500 animals on exhibition. Then the civil war of the early 1990's came. In a lurid carnival of slaughter, some elephants and other great beasts were killed by artillery. Deer were stolen for meat. A building collapsed on the reptiles. One soldier, displaying his bravery, leaped a wall and strutted through the lion pit, showing he was unafraid to touch Marjan and his mate. The big cat instinctively tore the man apart. A few hours later-as the elderly zoo keepers now tell the story-the soldier's brother arrived to take mandatory revenge. He tossed a grenade at the lion, blinding him. And ever since, Marjan has paced about miserably, without promise for better times, waiting day after day to be fed.

By Barry Bearak

Tillbaks till Afghanistansidan