Russians in Kabul; Occupational hazards of a Soviet occupation
Kabul Airport, Afghanistan
Throwing up thick clouds of dust that drift across the sprawling airfield, Soviet helicopter gunships bristling with 57-mm rockets line up in groups of six.Skip to next paragraph
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In the shimmering desert heat, the bizarre mechanical ballerinas lift up briefly in a trial hover. Then, rotors chopping loudly, they roar off to attack resistance positions beyond the crusty, ocher mountains that overlook the Afghan capital.
Further down the tarmac, heavy Soviet transport planes and MIG jet fighters stand along the runway aprons, while teams of shirtless Russian soldiers wearing Boy Scout-like hats unload supplies. Bored, tanned, and sporting wispy mustaches , the soldiers pause to watch the Ariana Afghan Airways DC-10 passenger plane from London and Paris taxi toward the terminal building. One or two venture a casual wave.
In many respects, one cannot help being reminded of many American GIs during the Vietnam war. Youthful and apparently benign, they bear the same ambivalence for a war and a country in which they have little interest.
Kabul International Airport has changed much since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Commercial flights from the West still touch down twice a week, but this is a far cry from the days when the Afghan capital bustled with tourists, international development technicians, and advisers. Tourism is now virtually nonexistent, and apart from a few embassy staffers, teachers, and aid officials, Westerners have long since left.
Nevertheless, Ariana, which used to be operated by Pan American, continues to try to provide regular services in its bid for international prestige and hard currency. Now it is more or less a subsidiary of Aeroflot, the official Soviet airline. Occasionally Ariana pilots and crew defect to West Germany and elsewhere, and the planes fly half full. The airline relies primarily on French and British tourists taking advantage of the its bargain rates to India.
Only a sprinkling of passengers - some Afghan Embassy and UNESCO personnel from Paris, three members of the French Communist Party, and several Russians - disembarked at Kabul on a recent trip. The rest, including this correspondent, waited in the airport transit lounge for three hours before catching the next connection to New Delhi.
Few Western journalists are permitted to visit Kabul officially. When they are, their movements are closely monitored and organized. Repeated requests by the Monitor to enter Afghanistan through ''normal'' channels rather than solely with the resistance have either been ignored or refused by the Babrak Karmal regime.
Hence information regarding conditions inside the Afghan capital must come from Western diplomats, guerrilla sources, refugees, and travelers. Ironically, only three weeks after my transit visit to Kabul, I was trekking with mujahideen forces just beyond the mountain ridges northeast of the capital.
According to numerous sources interviewed by this correspondent, the dragging war in Afghanistan is being increasingly felt in the capital. Public animosity toward the Soviet-backed authorities is rampant in the face of unabashed communist propaganda onslaughts. Food prices have more than doubled since the end of last year, and urban guerrilla warfare is back on the rise following a substantial lull during the bitterly cold winter months.