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Afghan children begging Afghan refugee children lie on a cart while begging near the Pakistani city of Peshawar. (Reuters photo)    Afghan children begging Students of the largest Islamic school hold a protest in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Reuters photo)

Afghanistan: Grim life savaged by war

By Kathy Gannon, Associated Press, 09/17/01

KABUL, Afghanistan - Mir Jan slowly slides his fingers along the scar that runs across his forehead.


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Nation's history of resistance


US forces face a tough fight
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Soviet veterans warn that war in Afghanistan hopeless, deadly


Rising fear in Central Asia

His cheek bone protrudes. Another scar zigzags down the side of his nose, causing his nose to be pushed to one side. He lifts his unkempt beard to reveal another jagged seam; this one runs almost from ear to ear.

Jan's misshapen face is a painful map of the tragedy that is Afghanistan.

The forehead wound happened during the 1979-1989 occupation by the Soviet Union. The disfigured cheek and nose are the result of a bomb that blew up near his face after Soviet troops had left Afghanistan and U.S.-backed insurgents took power, turning their guns on each other and killing about 50,000 people in the capital, Kabul, most of them civilians.

"They told me I wouldn't be alive for one more hour and then they said by the end of the day I would be dead," Jan says.

But he lived to get the third scar that runs the length of his neck, fighting as a Taliban soldier against a northern-based alliance led by ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

"If God says you die at 10 o'clock, it won't be 10 minutes later. That is when you will die," he said. "What can we do in our country? We have nothing, only war and more war."

While residents fear a retaliatory U.S. attack on Afghanistan -- which has refused to surrender Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- most Afghans are fatalistic.

"What more can happen to us? Our whole country is rubble," said Shukat Mir, stroking his long beard.

Afghanistan is a land maimed by war and ravaged by rival armies, a land of poor widows and orphans. The United Nations calls the country a "humanitarian catastrophe." Devastated by relentless war, a punishing drought and a shattered economy, only the poorest still live there. Those with education and money have mostly left. Many Afghans live as refugees in Pakistan or Iran, but many more have fled to Western nations.

Women in giant sweeping burqas sit in the middle of the rocket-rutted roads in Kabul, their hands outstretched begging for food. Under stringent Taliban rules, women can no longer work.

Outside a mosque, one woman quietly comes forward, speaking English. "Please, I am not a beggar, I am an English teacher. Could you find me a job in one of the provinces?"

Most of the capital lies in ruins, destroyed by feuding Islamic factions that ruled between 1992 and 1996, when the Taliban took control of Kabul.

At one of several subsidized bakeries located throughout the city to feed two-thirds of Kabul's 1 million people, Shiva Bib hugged her chest and wept. She has six children. For breakfast she feeds them sweet tea and bread. Usually they have only one other meal, soup with potatoes.

"Please, you have to help me. The world has to help us," she said, her voice pleading, shoving her small son forward. He looked perhaps 3 years old, his face marred by bright red lesions near his mouth and nose. His clothes were soiled.

The World Food Program estimates as many as 4 million people could face starvation this winter throughout the country. In Kabul alone, more than 750,000 people rely on international assistance for survival.

Last week, following the terrorist attacks in the United States, all the international aid workers pulled out of Kabul. They say their assistance programs will continue, but on a substantially reduced basis.

But for the hungry, there is certain to be no food.

The World Food Program brings in hundreds of tons of wheat every month. That ended with the closure of Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, one of a series of demands made by the United States, which also includes the use of Pakistani airspace and soil for any attack on Afghanistan.

In western Afghanistan, the United Nations has set up four camps for more than 200,000 Afghans who have fled their homes over the past two years, driven out of their fields by relentless drought and from their homes by war.

The conditions in the camps were described as horrific last winter when hundreds of people died of the cold. It was expected to be worse this year.

Afghanistan's neighbors have closed their borders. They don't want any more refugees. Pakistan already has 2 million refugees and Iran, 1.3 million. Countries around the world are closing their borders. Australia is turning away boatloads of Afghans risking death in crowded, leaky boats.

"We are very sad here in Afghanistan. Everything is always coming down on our heads," said Gul Mohammed, a shop owner.


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