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Afghanistan's Tragic Fate

Prague, Feb. 8 (RFE/RL) - For centuries the Afghan capital Kabul has been in the path of great invasions. This century is no different.

When, as it inevitably must, the fighting lulls the first task faced by the modern day victors, whoever they may be, will be to rebuild the city they have helped smash to bits.

In the meantime, those who have survived until now will continue to endure the hardships. War and chaos is all that many remember. A generation of children were born among the ruins. They know nothing else. Life for them is about being responsible, finding food, making money. Playtime, when it comes, is filled by war games.

Most of the world's media has forgotten the plight of a people who have suffered nearly 18 years of almost constant fighting. Gone are the heady days when Soviet troops and U.S.-backed Muslim guerrillas faced each other across the battlefield.

That nine-year conflict had all the elements of what journalists call "a good story." Afghanistan was then a stamping ground for superpower egos.

When the Communist government, which the Russians left behind, collapsed four years ago Afghanistan was still on the news agenda. Since then the interest has waned. The conflict was deemed to be internal, centering on rival Muslim groups.

The attention returned briefly this week as the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an emergency airlift to bring the city back from the brink of starvation. There was also the good news of supply routes opening up.

But correspondents who witnessed the arrival of food aid to the city painted a picture of despair. Beyond the daily bomb and rocket attacks even the natural elements seem to be conspiring against the city's residents. Kabul is suffering its coldest winter for four years. Night temperatures plunge as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius. There has been no electricity for nearly three years. Scores of people are taken to hospital daily with frostbite.

The war torn capital surrounded by snow-capped peaks was once a vibrant trade center. Now virtually the only lucrative employment comes from working for a foreign aid agency. Their fancy four-wheel drive trucks make the impoverished city look starker still.

The prognosis is grim. Afghanistan as a whole has among the highest rates of infant mortality and malnutrition in the world. The country has rampant inflation putting the most basic goods and foodstuffs beyond the reach of many people.

As for fighting itself as yet there seems little hope of a letup. Forces of the Taleban Islamic militia, that pushed to within a mile of Kabul's outskirts last fall, are continuing to besiege the city.

Injury and death are never far away. Where the rockets and the bombs fail there are always the land mines to wreak destruction.

Initially the Taleban were seen as liberators. When they first came knocking on the gates of Kabul a year ago they promised to end the battering of the civil population.

Now they are perceived as just another guerrilla group seeking to pound the city into submission. The Teleban already control large areas of southern and western Afghanistan.

The change in attitude may in part be explained by the Taleban's reputation for imposing strict Sharia law in the places they have captured. This has dented their appeal among those who remember Afghanistan as a country rich in its ethnic and religious diversity.

The Taleban's promise was to hold popular elections once the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani had been overthrown. Apart from a firm commitment to Islam people find it difficult to perceive any wider political motives in the Taleban beyond the immediate quest for power.

The quest for the city's estimated 1.2 million people is simply survival. Beyond that they probably dare not even hope.