Where Kids Pay Price of War

A RECENT series of bomb blasts in Pakistan, alleged to be the work of neighboring militant Afghans, has intensified concerns that abject poverty in Afghanistan is adding to armed violence being exported abroad.

As the 16-year-old war in the devastated country refuses to end, many Western observers and officials in neighboring Pakistan are worried that Afghan children, today's victims of the fighting, may grow up to be the militants of tomorrow, prepared to take up arms for extremist causes.

The destitution of Afghanistan's war-ravaged population and a growing trend toward Islamic militancy by some are related. The utter destruction of the country, roughly the size of Texas, has led to tremendous hardships, conditions under which many have known no trade other than the use of weapons.

"This is a country where the most popular trade and the most widely available training goes toward anything to do with using a gun," says one Western diplomat.

The concern over the continuing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan has been highlighted in yet another recent United Nations emergency appeal for international aid to help Afghans cope with the long winter.

The sight of barefoot children walking the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, in biting winter cold is not uncommon. Enduring freezing temperatures, Kabul's 1 million people are without fuel or electricity. There is virtually no hope that the city's main power station, destroyed during the war, will come back on line any time soon. It will take an estimated $65 million to repair.

There is no money for major reconstruction projects. Even finding international donors for immediate humanitarian aid is hard. Last year, the UN appealed for $106 million in humanitarian assistance and received just under 80 percent of that amount.

"Kabul must be virtually the only capital in the world where the population has no access to electricity or running water," says Martin Barber, the UN's chief coordinator for humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. "The civilian population has suffered ... steadily worsening conditions."

BUT the UN's call may not arouse fresh international interest. Many donor nations are not encouraged by what they see as a continuing political deadlock. For most of 1995, the Taliban - a militia of radical religious students - has steadily captured regions of Afghanistan. For almost three months, it has laid siege to Kabul and demanded that President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the nominal leader of the country, step down and power be transferred to a coalition of Islamic freedom fighters.

President Rabbani has refused to comply, throwing the future of a UN peace plan into doubt.

With Afghanistan's future uncertain, many donors want to wait to see signs of a settlement before giving large-scale help.

That argument threatens to become a vicious circle because unless there is help for the victims of the war, more and more people may take up arms.

The situation on the ground provides a mixed bag of discouragement and hope. Three of the four roads leading into Kabul are blocked by the Taliban. Local commanders, who control access through the fourth road, know they command the only access route and have raised the "price" they charge to allow safe passage of food convoys into the city.

But Mr. Barber also points to a number of rural areas where peace is gradually returning and where local military commanders have managed to prevent an outbreak of violence. He wants to dispel the impression that most Afghans are turning to violence. "It's not a case of the whole society being mobilized to fight among itself....There are far, far, more victims than there are perpetrators of violence," he says.

Without reconstruction help, however, the most vulnerable groups, such as women, children, and the elderly, suffer the most. Many observers are not hopeful of either an immediate change in donor sentiments or new political trends that might move the country closer to peace.

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