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National Agenda : Kabul Residents Endure Siege by Factional Muslim Fighters : The issues mean little to most of them. But the suffering and terror are daily realities.

March 22, 1994|IAN MACWILLIAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KABUL — Another mortar round crashed among the jumbled houses of the old city, exploded with a bone-jarring crack and threw up a cloud of dust and smoke. A stream of people hurried out of the warren of old bazaars and dashed across a bridge over the filthy Kabul River, crouching low to avoid shrapnel and stray bullets. The bundled figures carried sacks or pushed carts of possessions they had managed to salvage.

Machine-gun fire rattled from the crumbling medieval walls of the Bala Hissar fortress that sits on a ridge overlooking the shattered buildings of the old city. A fire ignited by an explosion in the morning blazed uncontrollably, spreading through shops in the bazaar area and sending a column of black smoke into the clear air beside the minaret and battered red dome of Kabul's main mosque.

The Afghan capital is at war again. Since New Year's Day, fighting has raged in Kabul as the combined forces of two of Afghanistan's most ruthless warlords have tried to drive the current ineffective government from power.

The Afghan war, fueled by Soviet, U.S. and later Arab-supplied weapons, is one bloody struggle the world would rather forget. Most people believe that it should have ended two years ago, when President Najibullah fled and his Soviet-backed government in Kabul collapsed.

The fighting has not ended because of a power struggle between rival leaders of the Islamic moujahedeen, or "Holy Warriors," which broke out as they marched in to take control of Kabul in the spring of 1992, after a 13-year struggle against Soviet troops and their Afghan proteges. This power struggle has led to three previous bouts of severe fighting in the capital, reducing large areas to rubble.

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As fighting continued in the old city and along the Kabul River, which now forms the front line between government and rebel forces in the midst of the city, a steady flow of wounded arrived at Jumhuriyat Hospital. This is in the center of the city, near Chicken Street, once the hangout of Western hippies and carpet dealers in the more carefree days before the war.

As the crash of shells repeatedly shook the hospital and rattled the windows, a horn blared and a jeep roared into the compound. Two young boys, butcher's assistants from the old bazaar, were taken out, one unconscious, the second grimacing with pain, his clothes stained with blood.

A third man lay on the floor of the jeep, his face a greenish hue in death and his jaws already tied shut with a rag. The two boys were taken in on stretchers to have their wounds patched up, and the stretcher was wiped clean for the next patient.

"The past few days have been quiet," said a French doctor of the volunteer group Medicins Sans Frontieres. "Today we're getting back to normal."

Kabul is in its 12th week of fighting between the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and rebel forces of the former Communist militia leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum, supported by the renegade prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Hekmatyar, an outspoken critic of the United States, has always presented himself as the "purest" of the Islamist leaders. His alliance with Dostum, the most unrepentant of the remnants of the former Communist government, has seriously damaged his credibility, however. Dostum, a powerful militia leader from the north of Afghanistan, precipitated the collapse of the former government in 1992, when he suddenly turned his back on President Najibullah in Kabul and joined the moujahedeen in fighting against the government.

The maneuvering for military advantage, the making and breaking of alliances, matters little to the civilians, the main victims of this latest round of the Afghan power struggle. Few of them any longer support any of the five factions that control various parts of Kabul.

"Everyone hates these leaders," said a middle-aged Kabul man whose house was destroyed in the fighting. He now lives in a tent in a vast camp for Kabuli refugees near the eastern city of Jalalabad. "All the leaders want is one thing--power. It has nothing to do with religion, just power."

The fighting has centered on the old city and Microrayon, a once-fashionable Soviet-style residential area of half-finished high-rise apartment buildings and immobile building cranes.

President Rabbani's troops, led by the popular moujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, control the north and center of Kabul, while Dostum's and Hekmatyar's forces occupy the Bala Hissar and the southeastern corner of the city.

The south of Kabul, flattened in earlier bouts of fighting, has been largely peaceful this time. It is under the control of yet another faction, Hezbi Wahdat, a party of ethnic Hazaras, who are Shia Muslims. The majority of Afghans are Sunni Muslims.

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Gul Mohammed, administrator of a hospital in the south Kabul area of Karte-Se, is not optimistic that the fighting will stop. He voices a general disenchantment with President Rabbani, who took office in 1992 shortly after the moujahedeen takeover.

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