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Afghan 'Tiger Cat' Claws at U.S. Image

Villagers say GIs loosed the beast, which others call a hoax. But what of the children's scars?

August 10, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

QOOCHI, Afghanistan — To hunt the ferocious tiger cat on the Shomali plains north of Kabul, you must move through a maze of walled dirt alleys and dip into the icy fear that chills entire villages.

Along the way, you'll have to interrogate bombastic heroes who claim to have wrestled and killed these beasts single-handedly, and sift conflicting descriptions of something like a big dog, or a fox, or a cat.

And just when you are convinced the story is a crazy legend, you will meet children scarred by cat attacks, and mourn with a man who lost his grown son to illness after a cat bite.

Whatever it is that is terrifying the villagers on this verdant plain studded with fruit trees and land mines, people here agree on who is responsible: the American military.

Until a few months ago, no one had heard the name pisho palang, or tiger cat, but since then, it has kept villagers indoors at night, terrified of attack.

A Kabul magazine conveyed the terror with its headline, "In Shomali, Dangerous Animals Are Eating People."

There are some theories that the cats might have crossed the mountains from China, or perhaps are domestic cats gone so feral in the country's long wars that they acquired a taste for human flesh. But few people give those much credence.

These beasts, the popular view goes, did not just arrive; they were brought here. In the blinkered certainty of village logic, the arrival of two unwelcome groups of newcomers, American soldiers and pisho palang, can only be related.

"Before this new Army came here, we didn't have these cats," said Mohammed Yakob, 45, from Saidkhail village, near Charikar, north of Kabul.

Even in anti-Taliban areas, the jubilation over America's role in toppling the hard-core religious government has long faded and resentment against foreigners is growing. Many Afghans see the American forces as interlopers, even occupiers, and gossip about their bad deeds and ill intent is rife.

In some parts of the country, angry farmers blame Americans for their poor opium poppy crops this season, charging that U.S. planes sprayed them with herbicides -- an assertion denied by U.S. officials. In Charikar, they accuse American servicemen of selling pornographic magazines in the market square.

Near the U.S. base at Bagram airport, just outside Charikar, rumors about the pisho palang convey the scale of the P.R. problem that the American military has in Afghanistan.

In an e-mail response to the questions about the rumors, Col. Roger Davis, of the base press office, rejected the villagers' assertions that American forces had released the tiger cats, but did not say whether the Americans thought it important to correct the misconceptions.

"No, we don't use cats, killer cats, Al Qaeda cats, mountain cats, tiger cats, pussy cats or any other cats to execute combat operations," he wrote.

In the dusty main streets of the villages around here, there's always a young, brash fellow on the edge of the crowd whose claim to familiarity with the pisho palang trumps everyone else's. He saw one just last night. He killed one recently. Or he can sell you one.

"How much do you want for it?" asked Fazel, 25, in Saidkhail village, who goes by one name. Pursued, he retreats, then admits, giggling, "OK, I'm lying."

Another local named Faiz Agha says he killed one in mid-June: "It ran at us, and we killed it. It was like a puppy, the same color as a camel or dust. We threw it in the river, and it floated away."

But a scornful voice pipes up from the crowd in contradiction: "That wasn't a pisho palang. It was a baby fox."

At times, the alleged American motives for releasing the pisho palang and supposed delivery methods strain common sense.

"We heard that foreigners are releasing them at night from planes to eat people. We heard that usually the tiger cats attack the throat and drink all the blood," said Mohammed Saber, also from Saidkhail.

Air delivery? But wouldn't the fall kill the cats?

"They fly really low," said Koko Gul, 20, of nearby Monara village, holding his hands a foot from the ground, "and they just drop the cats onto the ground."

Fazul Rahim, 28, of Said- khail, said he knew a man who caught a pisho palang in a net. It had some kind of foreign stamp on its rump, he claimed.

"And some American came and he wanted to buy it for $5,000, but my friend wouldn't sell it," Rahim said.

He refused $5,000 for a cat?

"Yes. He said, 'Right now, they're paying $5,000, but maybe later they'll pay more,' " Rahim recounted.

Villagers say four or five people have been killed in cat attacks, cases that could not be traced. There are tales that dozens of people left villages in recent months to escape the creature.

In Qoochi village, Gul Afraz, 50, tells a rollicking tale, waving his arms, leaping up at times, to illustrate his heroism in bare-handedly wrestling and killing a pisho palang that had attacked a boy three or four months ago.

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