Refugee's tale of life and flight from Kabul

Amamodin, a minority Tajik, fled last week after US strikes hit close to home.

For more than two weeks, Amamodin watched American bombs drop on Taliban positions in the Afghan capital, Kabul, with a grin as wide as all outdoors.

But as the Taliban moved their units, anti-aircraft guns, and rockets into residential neighborhoods, the bombs began to fall closer to home.

A little more than a week ago, one blast fell in Amamodin's neighborhood. The next day, he packed up his wife and nine children and made his way, illegally, into Pakistan.

"The people in Kabul, they see the airplanes everyday," says Amamodin, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "The Americans know the specific places to hit, but sometimes they misplace the bombs. And now the Taliban are taking the guns to the residential areas, and when they fire at the planes, the planes see them and drop bombs on them. That's when the innocent people die."

Amamodin does not represent the views of all Afghans. He's a member of the Tajik ethnic minority, with strong antipathy toward the ruling Taliban, who are mainly members of Afghanistan's Pashtun majority.

But recent arrivals like Amamodin offer the clearest picture available of life under Taliban rule after more than three weeks of aerial bombardment by the US and Britain.

The stories these refugees tell are widely divergent and are often strikingly different from the images one sees on television. Some continue to support the Taliban, others revile them.

Indeed, while a growing number of Pakistanis and Muslims worldwide see the US-led air war as an unconscionable attack on innocent civilians, Afghan refugees are much less unified in their opinion.

"The people are just happy if the Taliban are destroyed, because they hate the Taliban," says Amamodin, sitting with his wife and children in a 10-by-12 foot room provided by an Afghan friend in Rawalpindi, near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

"If American soldiers show up in Kabul, everyone will show them the places where the Taliban are hiding. The people will support them, especially the ladies, because they hate them a lot," he says.

Five years under Taliban rule

For five years, Amamodin says his family made the best of life under the strict Taliban, who stormed the capital in the early morning hours of September 27, 1996. Amamodin grew his beard long, down to his belly button, and started wearing a turban to his job as the head of all drivers in Kabul for Ariana Airlines, the Afghan national airline.

His wife, Shaima, was forced to quit her job as a housekeeper and cook and don an all-covering veil, or burqa. Their eldest daughter, Marina, then 10 years old, also was expected to wear a burqa, though she often tripped over the hem and fell in the dusty streets.

All of Amamodin's daughters - Marina (now 15), Arezo (12), Sediqa (8), Alina (6), and Aisha (4) - had to quit school and stay indoors.

Amamodin and Shaima worried that their older sons - particularly 19-year-old Rahimuddin and 18-year-old Aiamuddin - would be conscripted to fight against the ragtag opposition Northern Alliance that continues to hold positions just 25 miles north of Kabul in the rugged Panjshir Valley.

"We were like prisoners inside our home. I was so much disappointed when the Taliban came, especially about the education of my daughters," says Shaima, talking with a foreign male visitor for the first time in five years. "I was afraid even in Peshawar, [Pakistan] that they would stop us and make us go back, and only until I came here, then I was feeling a little better."

Pakistan - already home to some 2 million Afghans, the world's largest refugee population - has closed its borders to all but those in urgent need. The United Nations says 80,000 refugees have arrived here since Sept. 11, and has warned of a potential influx of as many as 1 million.

Nightly air raids

When the bombing campaign began on Oct. 7, Shaima says she and most of her neighbors were happy, at least in the privacy of their homes. But then the sounds of the bombing moved from military targets and communications centers, such as the transmission tower for the Taliban's Radio Shariat, perched on the mountain near her house.

"At night, when the bombing started, the children were yelling, crying, shouting," she recalls. "I was making them calm, advising them that we will be somewhere safe soon. I was afraid also, but inside. I couldn't show it."

As afraid he and his wife were, Amamodin says the Taliban appear more frightened. Amamodin says Taliban morale in Kabul is deteriorating. "The Taliban were so much frightened on the first day of the bombing," he says. "They stay in a mosque at night and when people come to pray, they tell them to go away."

Trek to safety

Compared to the long, difficult trek most Afghan refugees face, Amamodin admits he had it easy. With two tin trunks of clothes, his wife's jewelry, and 25,000 rupees (about $400) in savings, Amamodin joined two friends - the chief of Ariana Airlines and a former Taliban military officer - and boarded a van to Jalalabad.

From there, they paid a guide 350 rupees (less than $6) per person to take them on a seven-hour hike toward the border, an hour-long mountain climb, and finally a small trot to a waiting fleet of private buses in the autonomous tribal town of Door Baba, within Pakistan.

It was there that Amamodin's journey almost came to an end.

A policeman stopped the bus, boarded it, and told Amamodin that he and his family would have to return to Afghanistan. Amamodin pleaded with the man, pointing to his wife and children. How could he support them in Afghanistan? He asked. And how could he take them back to a land of war?

Empathy prevailed, sort of. "The policeman said, 'OK, give me 2,000 rupees,'" Amamodin says with a grin.

Once inside Pakistan, Amamodin says the first thing he did was trim his long beard. His wife and daughters stowed their burqas, and his sons went looking for work. Now they are inundated with visitors, mostly fellow refugees from Kabul asking for the latest news of relatives still inside Afghanistan.

Soon, he will join the thousands of Afghans seeking to be classified first as refugees, and second, as candidates for political asylum. In this line, money means nothing.

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