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A Tale Of Two Cities


new internationalist
issue 211 - September 1990

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A tale of
two cities
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Afghanistan's civil war is taking some strange turns,
Behrouz Afagh finds on visiting both sides of the conflict.

It was over a year since the Soviet troops had withdrawn but all the ingredients of a city at war were there, neatly displayed, on the bright sunny day I arrived in Kabul. At the airport, the burnt-out wreckage of a transport plane shot down while trying to land two weeks earlier was still lying near the runway. The terminal building was a dilapidated empty hall. partitioned with cardboard. The roads were riddled with big pot-holes. Buildings damaged by bombs and rockets were left unrepaired.

Another rocket had fallen on the city in the morning. Another 12 children had been killed. Women were crying and beating their chests while men pulled the corpses out of the ruin. Two giant Soviet military planes landed and three took off in just half an hour, making the whole city tremble with their sound. The artillery guns were occasionally heard firing from the surrounding mountains. Streets were quiet. People looked poor, sad and tired. For them it was just another ordinary day.

But on the night of 14 May 1990 an important event took place. For the first time in the 12 years that the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan had been in power, a beauty contest was staged in Kabul. In the final round, held amidst loud music, a 20-year-old flight attendant was chosen as Miss Afghanistan 1990. Kabul was going through another stage of glasnost.

A month before that, again for the first time, the Writers' Union elected a president whose style of writing was not socialist realism. He is not a member of the ruling party but the party chiefs must have been very happy that he, rather than their official candidate, was elected.

Their new policy is to undermine the party - so that it can survive. It sounds complicated, not to say perverse, but the logic is simple. The idea is to prove that they are not the people they were, that they are giving up their communist ideology. The party is changing its name from the People's Democratic Party, so as to be more acceptable to the people. President Najibullab 's government is introducing major reforms in the economy and in the education system. It's building new mosques to show that it respects Islam. It's bringing more people from outside the party into the cabinet, and it's promising a democratic multi-party system.

Show, all show
All these changes are meant to persuade the opposition to stop fighting and share power with the Government. But memories of the past 12 years are too bitter.

Asef, a taxi driver, is sceptical. I show him the cuttings I've got from the Kabul press: 'Stalin's unpunished crimes', 'Communism in crisis', 'New Europe', 'Lessons for Afghanistan'. He is not impressed. 'This is just a show to impress people like yourself,' he says. 'The majority of our people don't care about pluralism or press freedom. All they know is that these infidels brought the Russians to our country, and with them, 11 years of war, killing, destruction and hunger.

Asef was a senior civil servant before the Soviet invasion. He had to retire because he wasn't prepared to co-operate with them. He has spent all these years at home and has only recently been working again. 'Would you have given an interview to a foreign journalist three years ago and been so outspoken against the regime?,' I asked him. He knew what I was getting at. He said jokingly 'No, but you are offering me the London rate for this interview: £20 is a lot of money here.'

In fact he didn't expect to be paid, but £20 ($35) is indeed a lot of money in Kabul. If you change it on the black market, which you can quite openly, it is about three months' salary for a civil servant or an engineer. You can buy meat and fruit with it for a week, which are extremely rare luxuries.

You don't need to be an economist to know that the war has devastated agriculture and that without aid from outside people would simply starve to death. You can see so many farmers in the bazaars of Kabul who have been driven off their land by war, and are now selling fruit that has been imported from Pakistan with money borrowed from the Soviet Union.

Hamid, who taught economics at Kabul University, could provide all the facts and figures but he didn't need to. His own meagre life was proof enough. He had a second job as a part-time porter and, even with his two incomes, his family hadn't been able to buy any food other than bread, sugar and tea for a whole month.

The soldiers who guard the Afghan Foreign Ministry building in the centre of Kabul know how to ask you in English if you can spare a cigarette. This is all they can say to foreign journalists who visit the press centre for briefings every day in the afternoon. But if you understand their language, they will not let you go without giving you a long passionate speech. 'Why has the world forgotten us? Why has the war got to go on? Haven't we suffered enough? You must tell our mujahed brothers that the Russians have gone. You must ask our people to come back home. You must tell the world we need their help.'

No sign of God's help
'God's help is only a prayer away,' says a big blue sign on the main road about five miles from Peshawar, just over the border in Pakistan where refugees and mujahedin guerillas are to be found. A few yards further on, a narrow mud alley on the right is the entrance to Kachegary, one of the many camps set up in Pakistan to house three million Afghan refugees. It was late afternoon when I arrived there. Men wrapped in dun-coloured blankets were sitting outside the camp mosque. They had finished their afternoon prayers. There was no sign of God's help, only of extreme poverty.

They live in mud huts and ragged tents, a large family of 10 or 12 in a single room. Dark, empty and full of disease. Munir's nine-year-old son had died a week ago. He had drunk contaminated water. Munir had already lost two sons in the war.

'Do you have any other children?'

'Yes, two little girls, and maybe another son next winter.' I thought he was too old to father children. He looked 80. He was 41. He had no teeth in his mouth.

There were no women in sight. They are confined to their homes all day, not to be seen by strange men. Many suffer from depression. Most of them cannot read or write. They are not allowed to learn. They are not allowed to work. Their pride is in the men they have lost in the war.

In Kachegary, most refugees have been around for some years and have learned how to survive. But for the newcomers life is more difficult. They cannot find work and Western aid organizations are running out of money to feed them. Cash and food from the West, say the aid experts, are being switched to Eastern Europe, and the Afghan refugees are losing out. They are becoming victims of glasnost.

When the Soviet troops completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, refugees hoped they would soon be able to return to their own country. Now their future looks bleak. Meanwhile their leaders, who have made fortunes out of the war, are squabbling with each other in their luxury mansions.

Mujahedin top brass
In a pleasant tree-lined avenue in University Town, the residential suburb of Peshawar, a huge. lavish building forms the headquarters of the Afghan Interim Government, probably the world's most disorganized government-in-exile. A fleet of expensive Japanese land-cruisers are parked in the courtyard and a dozen bearded young men with Kalashnikovs are standing guard at the gate.

Inside, the President-in-exile is telling me that he agrees with the latest UN plan to help refugees return to safe areas inside Afghanistan. He is also giving me the news that a fellow guerilla leader has been appointed as his new foreign minister. The President is probably not aware that one of his ministers has rejected the UN plan just a few hours ago and that the new foreign minister is to reject the appointment a few hours later. When I get up to leave, an official spokesperson tells me that he has no faith in this government. He doesn't even ask to remain anonymous.

In the same neighbourhood are more buildings under construction for the expanding ministries. The men who will occupy them were boasting last year that they would be saying their prayers in Kabul's main mosque by New Year's Eve.

They thought they had defeated the Soviet army and that it would take only a few months to bring down the regime left behind in Kabul. Within weeks thousands of people were lying dead in the battlefield around Jalalabad. The guerillas' offensive to capture this strategic border town had turned into their bloodiest defeat of the entire war.

Like their patrons in the West, the guerilla leaders had believed their own propaganda. Soon their men were fighting each other while the US began to lose faith in them. Now, after a year of wavering, Washington seems to have finally decided that the mujahedin cannot win the war and has agreed with Moscow that the future should be decided by elections. But it still continues supplying arms to them. The US policy-makers probably believe they don't have much to win or lose in Afghanistan and do not appear to have any sense of urgency in resolving this conflict, which has driven one-third of Afghanistan's population into exile.

Meanwhile, as the world's image of the Soviet Union has changed, so the mujahedin's image has been changing too. The men who were once brave freedom fighters struggling against the evil communist empire are seen today as narrow-minded fundamentalists who are killing each other for guns and drugs.

I wanted to interview a leading Afghan writer living in exile in Peshawar. He would not see me. He was afraid that he might get killed by extremist mujahedin. It's dangerous to be a moderate Afghan intellectual in Peshawar these days if you go around telling journalists what you think. So the following is not what he said. It's what I imagine he would have said:

'The mujahedin leaders never believed that the Soviet decision to leave Afghanistan had anything to do with reforms in the Soviet Union itself. Godless communist regimes, they thought, could never change. A year on, regimes across Eastern Europe have fallen and the entire communist world has changed, but the mujahedin haven't changed their mind. Some of them seriously believe that the people of Eastern Europe took their lead from the mujahedin, who are still debating whether they should allow women to vote when Afghanistan is freed and after they have killed and buried all the communists.'

His fellow writers actually said this: 'Communism has failed. Gorbachev is only responding to history. He had to liberalize the Soviet system. He had to support the reforms in Eastern Europe. He had to pull his army out of Afghanistan. Yes, he has to be given some credit, but only for doing what had to be done. The Afghans are not impressed by him. Look how he crushed our Muslim brothers in Central Asia. He helped East Germans to get rid of their communist regime but he is still supporting the communist government in Afghanistan.'

They said they would never go back as long as the present regime is in power. Neither would any of the other refugees I met. But then I never got the chance to hear what their wives thought, stuck in their little huts, spending another long summer in the unbearable heat of Peshawar.

Back in Kabul
You go to the briefing, you come back to the hotel, you report another mopping-up operation in the north or a new offensive in the south. You finish your story, you sit down to have tea with the telex operator. He tells you his story. It is the story of Afghanistan.

His name is Mazlum. He had a brother fighting for the mujahedin in a place called Panjshir who is still alive. But his elder brother died seven years ago. He was a pilot in the Afghan air force. His plane was shot down in a combat mission. It was a bombing raid on Panjshir. The two brothers were fighting on opposite sides in the same battle. Mazlum had to look after his old parents, otherwise he too would have gone to fight. You don't ask him on which side. He has already told you that all he wants now is peace.

Behrouz Afagh is an Iranian journalist working on the BBC World Service

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The superpowers have often been blamed for meddling in Third World trouble spots and prolonging wars there to serve their own interests. Will there now be more chance of peace?

Maybe. But there has been a tendency to over-estimate the role played by super-power rivalry in Third World conflicts. Of the 23 major conflicts in progress in 1989 only five or six of them had any superpower involvement.

The fact is that people have their own reasons for fighting. Perhaps the world will now pay more attention to these real local causes. In some cases this clearer vision might make it easier to resolve conflicts.

Cartoon: Jim Needle But there is also a real danger of conflicts becoming bloodier and more numerous. By and large the superpowers worked to restrain their Third World allies. A contained war on the other side of the globe suited the US or the USSR. A war that was allowed to career out of control threatened global security - and consequently the security of the superpowers themselves. Without this constraining influence there might be more of the 'no holds barred' approach to warfare. With arsenals of chemical and nuclear weapons proliferating around the world this is, to say the least, very worrying.

As conflicts become more local or regional the external players are more likely to be neighbours, with a vested interest in the outcome of the war. Israel, for example, may get more involved in the Middle East in order to secure its position in the region. It is already doing so in Ethiopia. India may meddle more in the affairs of its sub-continental neighbours. It may prove difficult to control the imperialist, expansionist ambitions of such regional powers. The obvious bullies will be the people who live next door - not those who have come from the other side of the world.

But in some cases, of course, the superpowers themselves are the bullying neighbours - and their interest in their own 'backyard' is unlikely to diminish. Nicaragua, for instance, was to the US what Afghanistan was to the USSR. But while the Soviets eventually had to admit defeat and withdraw, the Americans won their covert war against Nicaragua.

War weary and impoverished, when Nicaraguans went to the polls earlier this year they voted for the coalition supported by the US, knowing that only they could guarantee an end to US hostility and reopen the channels of aid and trade.

Today the peace is uncertain and the aid decidedly dodgy. The Contras are handing over arms - but only their outdated ones. In the meantime they are operating death squads in that part of the country where they have managed to retain control.

On the aid front, the US has promised $300 million - $45 million of which is earmarked for the Contras. So far $60 million has emerged - only one-hundredth of the $6,000 million bandied around during the election campaign, and a fraction of the $17,000-million worth of damage caused by US-backed forces over the past decade.

Some of the aid, moreover, is distinctly unhelpful. The Christian Broadcasting Network sent 20,000 boxes of Anyways Critics Choice Popcorn, as part of 'Operation Blessing'. The popcorn came in several flavours - cheddar cheese, cinnamon, sour cream - all of which had to be destroyed when found to be rancid. Then arrived the thousands of Nutrilite Food bars (expiry dates 1987 and 1988). Mr Bonilta Vargas, the receiver of this largesse, was finally prompted to comment: 'The Christian Broadcasting Network is engaging in a great business where the poor of the world are just another factor on the spreadsheet, somewhere to dump old food or defective toothbrushes'.

Nicaragua badly needs medicines. So, amid much media hype, a plane-load was shepherded through by the US President's son, Marvin Bush. It was unfortunate that 60 per cent of the medicines had exceeded their expiry date and had to be destroyed on arrival.

More serious is the offer being made by the Florida-based Lyons Investment Inc. The company will provide Nicaragua with 230,000 tons of incinerated ash, which could be used as landfill for swampy areas on the Atlantic coast. When local biologists examined a sample, however, they found that the ash contained arsenic, aluminium, lead and copper, likely to cause lung cancers, delirium, comas or death. It was toxic enough to pollute the Atlantic coast for the next 150 years. The Government is still pondering whether to sign on the dotted line and let the US's backyard become its junkyard.

When there is fighting it is the backyard that gets wrecked. When a superpower pulls out of the fray the backyard may be forgotten. Or worse still it may be remembered...


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