Washington — Palm Beach, Fla., is famous for Gucci stores and polo. It is also the only United States city whose citizens sponsor a clandestine clinic for resistance fighters in Afghanistan. The ``Palm Beach Clinic for Afghans'' is the dream of the thoroughly American Richard and Susan Williams. After civic work limited to historical societies and charity balls in Florida, the retired couple suddenly found themselves wandering Asian bazaars dressed in native garb, with bodyguards.
``For days we pinched ourselves,'' said Susan, during a recent visit to Washington. ``We couldn't believe it.''
The clinic is near a crossroads in the Afghan hills, a day's journey from the capital of Kabul. Since late summer, its one Afghan doctor and two paramedics have treated 3,500 people, claim the Williamses.
The $13,000 spent so far has come from contributions by Palm Beach citizens. But the Williamses readily say they'd like foundation help, or perhaps some government funds. Because of asking for money, ``we're about to lose all our friends,'' says Richard.
The genesis of the project was a meeting of the Palm Beach Roundtable, the type of civic group that serves up public affairs lectures. Thirteen months ago the featured speaker was Dr. Khalid Akram, son of an official of the Afghan resistance organization United Islamic Front. Moved by Dr. Akram's depiction of the destruction wrought by the Soviet Union, Williams began collecting boots for the Afghan mujahideen fighters.
A thousand pairs later, Williams, a retired hospital supplier, realized he had also collected a substantial sum of money. Dr. Akram suggested they start a clinic. Next thing they knew, the Palm Beach couple was in Peshawar, Pakistan, with a suitcase full of donated sutures and armed tour guides that took them to guerrilla training camps.
To the Afghans, the sutures were self-explanatory. But Susan Williams, a former hospital director of nursing, says that for the most part clinic medical supplies are best bought in Peshawar.
``With things purchased there the instructions are written in Persian, which the Afghan doctors and paramedics can read,'' she says.
Dr. Akram, with a pack train of equipment, slipped across the border and established the clinic last July. It is far from a full-service hospital. Its staff can patch up wounded fighters, but can't perform major surgical operations. Much of its work is treating the illnesses of the local population. These illnesses, says Dr. Akram, have been exacerbated by Soviet destruction of provincial hospitals and by destruction of crops.
``Malnutrition is very much common among the people,'' he says.
The Palm Beach Clinic is the only medical station in its area of the country, says Dr. Akram. The Red Cross runs a large hospital in Peshawar, he adds -- and a group of French doctors sneak across the border to operate in Afghanistan itself.
Other US groups, such as the Los Angeles-based International Medical Corps, have sent the Afghans much aid. Some, such as the Free Afghanistan Alliance of Cambridge, Mass., arrange for wounded Afghans to travel to the west for treatment.
The Williams' son Owen recently took a secret trip into Afghanistan, to see the object of his parent's fundraising. Pictures he took show a mud-color village building, unremarkable execpt for a sign that says ``Palm Beach Clinic for Afghans'' in English -- a language few Afghans can read.
As Richard Williams points out, most Afghan villagers can't read any other language, either, so the words might as well be English.
Word of mouth, he says, ensures that the Afghans of the area know who their benefactor is.
``The main thing is that it's a symbol, something the Afghans relate to America,'' he says. ``This is the most important thing we've ever done in our lives.''