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RESPONSE TO TERROR | NEW THREATS

Afghan Workers Risk Their Lives Defending Long-Empty Embassy

November 28, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KABUL, Afghanistan — Empty and scarred by war and mob rage, the U.S. Embassy has stood waiting for diplomats almost 12 years while the compound's Afghan workers risk their lives to make sure it doesn't go unprotected.

The last U.S. Embassy staff left, and the compound closed, in December 1989, 10 months after the Soviets withdrew in defeat and Afghanistan descended into civil war.

The embassy and half a dozen other properties, including the ambassador's residence, were left in the care of several dozen Afghans, who thought the diplomats would be back in three months, half a year, tops.

Ghulam Sakhi Ahmadzai, the embassy's Afghan security chief, was in the notorious Pul-i-Charki prison at the time, nearing the halfway point of a 20-year sentence imposed by the country's former Soviet-backed rulers, who said he was a CIA spy.

Ahmadzai walked free in 1991 as Communist President Najibullah's regime was crumbling. He went straight back to work at the empty embassy, unarmed, to defend a piece of U.S. soil.

The Afghan workers say they took the risks not out of blind loyalty to a foreign flag but because they needed the money, which starts at about $100 a month for a guard at the front gate. That's a good salary here, and last year Washington threw in medical benefits.

"Afghans have a habit that anywhere they work is considered home," Ahmadzai, 58, said as the shattered glass of the embassy's front doors crunched underfoot. "Since we were paid, we had to protect it, as honestly as we could."

Through civil war, anti-American riots and, most recently, U.S. airstrikes, it hasn't been easy.

U.S. bombers struck a Taliban base across the street from the embassy about three weeks ago, and Taliban soldiers moved at least two tanks that survived the strike to the camouflage of a row of trees lining the embassy's sports field.

For about a week, the Taliban in effect occupied the outer part of the compound. When the Taliban fled Kabul on Nov. 13, and the Afghan staff returned to the embassy compound, Ahmadzai thought it best to have the minesweepers in to make sure the Taliban didn't leave any surprises behind.

Wearing bulletproof vests, sappers from the charity Halo Trust crisscrossed the embassy baseball field with electronic sweepers Tuesday and found two hand grenades, a shell fuse and various spent rounds from a heavy machine gun.

"Whenever we reopen, the staff will ask us, 'Did the mine-clearing people come?' " Ahmadzai predicted. "And we will say: 'Yes. We were on the safe side.' "

The embassy's 61 Afghan workers, who used a hidden satellite phone to maintain regular contact with U.S. diplomats in neighboring Pakistan, were under strict orders to pull out whenever their lives were threatened. So far, none has been seriously hurt, Ahmadzai said.

"Afghans can jump over walls easily, especially when you're scared," he added. "Then you're double fast. We were afraid we would be considered Americans, and we didn't want that to happen."

The Afghan workers were outside the embassy walls in good time in late September when a pro-Taliban mob protesting the threat of U.S. airstrikes broke into the embassy compound and ransacked it.

The rioters set fire to a row of storage sheds that contained, among other things, the refrigerators, furniture and other household goods that embassy staff and their families left behind when the compound, which opened in 1967, was closed.

The mob also destroyed the embassy's two 165-kilowatt generators, stole various tools and, strangely, attacked the geraniums, which they pulled out by the roots. The well-tended but thorny rosebushes escaped untouched.

Someone stole, or released, two parakeets that Ahmadzai had kept as a breeding pair in the greenhouse, where the embassy's Afghan groundskeepers cultivated flowers to keep the place pretty in case the diplomats ever returned.

"To be honest, we tried to keep our personnel busy and promote the beauty of the embassy," Ahmadzai said. "We thought, 'If the embassy opens, all we have to do is clean up the debris inside.' Now we have to do the outside and inside."

The pro-Taliban rampage was stopped at the chancery building's lobby, where the impact of automatic rifle rounds left spider-web cracks in the bulletproof glass.

A single round penetrated, but the front doors held.

The pro-Taliban swarm walked off with a brass plaque memorial honoring Adolph Dubs, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan assassinated in 1979.

On Tuesday, about 100 Russian soldiers pitched camouflage tents in Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan district, setting up a field hospital and a temporary embassy. The old Soviet compound is occupied by about 20,000 Afghan refugees, who are threatening to fight if anyone tries to move them.

Ahmadzai studied vocational education at USC from 1963 to 1967 and started working for the U.S. Embassy more than three decades ago. During his time in Pul-i-Charki prison, he was locked up in a 4-by-11-foot cell, with a hole in the floor as his toilet.

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