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Afghanistan: Citizens Anticipate War

By Alex Poolos

Afghans are nervous. All foreigners, including aid agencies, have been ordered out of the country, local news bulletins forecast strikes by the United States, and Mullah Muhammad Omar, the ruling Taliban's supreme leader, is calling his leaders to discuss a possible holy war against the United States. Thousands of Afghans are flooding the Pakistani border. Our correspondent Alex Poolos looks at the situation in Afghanistan as tensions and the threat of U.S. military strikes escalate.

Prague, 17 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- There are few places on Earth where people have lived in greater misery for more years than Afghanistan.

A rugged swath of landlocked deserts and mountains just smaller than the U.S. state of Texas, Afghanistan is where about 25 million people struggle to survive. One of every four children dies before the age of five. Life expectancy is about 43 years. Infant and maternal death rates are the second highest in the world. Only 12 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water. Barely 30 percent of the men and 15 percent of the women can read or write.

Two decades of war have left Afghanis bombed, raped, tortured, slaughtered, looted, and uprooted. Its lands are some of the most densely mined in the world. Its roads and irrigation systems are devastated by years of war and poverty. The United Nations has described the situation there as simply "a horror."

Bad is about to get worse. Or at least that is what Afghanis think. In the wake of terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, which the U.S. has attributed to Afghanistan's most notorious guest, Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, Afghan citizens have assumed they will be the target of massive military strikes by the United States.

Ron Redmond is the chief spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He says that in anticipation of the possible U.S. military strikes, Afghans are fleeing the country's main cities.

"So far, what we're able to determine is that Kandahar, the principal city in the south and the Taliban headquarters, is reported to be half-empty. Large numbers of people are also reported to have left Kabul. Jalalabad, the main city in the east, has also seen large numbers reportedly leave. Many of those leaving the cities are said to be heading for villages where they have family connections."

Redmond says tens of thousands of Afghans are heading toward the borders with Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan has shut its 2,500-kilometer border with Afghanistan and confined some 1.2 million Afghan refugees to camps in its Northwest Frontier province. Iran -- already host to more than 2 million Afghan refugees -- has also sealed its 900-kilometer border with Afghanistan.

There are some reports, however, that some Afghans with valid passports and visas have been able to enter Pakistan.

Redmond says before the 11 September attacks in the U.S., there were already over 1 million internally displaced people, and aid agencies were struggling to keep their heads above water.

"What is really worrisome to UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies is the already existing humanitarian situation facing millions of Afghans all across the country. And many of those people are barely managing to survive anyway. The situation inside Afghanistan after three years of drought and more than 20 years of conflict and war, as well as large-scale human rights abuses, is extremely fragile."

With the evacuation of the all international aid agency staff at the end of last week, millions of Afghani citizens have been left in extremely precarious situation that could lead to major population movements and even widespread deaths.

Wais Nasseri is an Afghan journalist. He says there is a state of panic among the country's citizens.

"Every war brings fear and panic. And people considering fleeing. This is natural after 22 years of war. Again a large scale war looms which makes people who have nothing to eat [very apprehensive]."

Nasseri say Afghans feel isolated, trapped and without any protection. Afghanistan's main opposition fighter, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, was assassinated last week in a suicide bombing. Afghanis do not trust the ruling Taliban to protect them or to act in their interest. Nasseri also said citizens have been terrorized by Pakistani secret service operatives who work in close connection with the Taliban.

"The Afghan people are trapped by the Taliban, bin Laden, and the Pakistani secret service."

But there is also an underlying hope in Afghanistan that U.S. military intervention may unseat the Taliban, which has imposed a strict Islamic rule upon Afghans.

"The people are suppressed. On the one hand they fear war. On the other hand there's hope that this is possibly a way out to free the Afghan people from the tyranny of the Taliban and that they will be liberated from the secret service."

For now, local Afghan staff from international aid groups can keep feeding the roughly 3 million people who depend on charity for daily meals. But supplies will run out quickly. Ironically, it is the United States that provides the greatest aid donations to Afghanistan -- some $80 million of the $140 million in UN humanitarian assistance. (Dora Slaba contributed to this report)