Afghans calm -- but 'smoldering' -- in Kandahar

No Russians are to be seen. Shopkeepers laugh mysteriously when you ask them about the Soviet invasion forces. One young student in the bazaar smiles sheepishly and says: "They are outside the city. They don't come into town."

Despite widespread rumors of heavy fighting here in Afghanistan's largest provincial town only 77 miles from the western Pakistan border, there is little indication of a Soviet presence in the bustling downtown area.

Only the occasional Russian-made jeep or armored personnel carrier roaring through the streets, and armed Afghan soldiers sulkily guarding the main public buildings, the banks, and the gas stations, suggest a military occupation.

"The Russians are occupying the airport and other security areas on the outskirts of the city," said one resident foreigner. "We can see and hear the planes as they come in. And there are many of them."

As elsewhere in Afghan towns, Soviet forces have adopted a discreetly low profile. But their conspicuous absence seems to incite more fear than calm among the local population.

"The people's feelings are slowly smoldering," said one observer."It is a very tense situation despite its apparent calm. The whole town could erupt any moment. There is great hatred for the Russians."

In the company of French photographer Thierry Boccon-Gibod, I had just arrived from the western Pakistan border. The atmosphere at the Spin Baldak frontier post was surprisingly nonchalant. There were no Russian troops. It was manned by a paltry group of Afghan soldiers lounging by the road barrier with their AK-47s resting between their legs.

One of them glanced disinterestedly at our passports. Carefully, he studied mine upside down. The majority of Afghans are uneducated and illiterate. Then he smiled and waved us on.

Catching an ancient but gaudily painted local bus crammed with Afghan tribesmen, we took three hours to travel the nearly arrow- straight American-built highway to Kandahar.

There was little traffic -- just a few cars, buses, and military trucks carrying armed conscripts in drab gray uniform. Twice we are stopped by control points. Guards quickly frisk the passengers and then motion us on.

In Kandahar, dusk is falling. It has been raining for several days and this normally dusty desert town is a quagmire of mud.

Motorscooter rickshaws with colored tassles attached to their windshields plummet through the bazaar thoroughfares barely swerving to miss the dirt-caked street urchins who pester passersby to buy cigarettes.

Contradicting the reports we have received in Pakistan of food shortages, vegetables and spice merchants loudly ply their trade in front of abundant stocks from the depths of their sidewalk stalls. A pall of burning firewood languishes in a faint blue haze over the streets.

At 8 p.m. the town suddenly empties. The hotel owner warns us not to go out. "It is too dangerous," he says, but does not explain why.

Then the sonorous blaring of a mobile loudspeaker warns the inhabitants to be inside by the 8:30 curfew. The town is eerily quiet -- apart from the sound of muffled radios from behind closed doors, the barking of dogs, and a military vehicle roaring through the cold night.

Foreign residents tell us that on the morning following the Dec. 27 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Kandahar found itself subdued by a strange calm. "It was a most unusual coup," said one foreigner. "There were no observers, no tanks, and no excitement."

This continued for several days. But on Dec. 31, Kandahar exploded. There was general panic. The shops abruptly shut at nine in the morning, having barely opened their shutters. Huge crowds gathered in the main thoroughfares and squares. At the main Kandahar bus terminal, mob violence suddenly erupted with people screaming insults against the Soviet Union. No one had apparently even seen a Russian soldier, but fantastic rumors were enough to spark a general frenzy.

Armed with sticks and stones, but reportedly no guns, the crowds attacked anything that represented the central regime in Kabul. Military vehicles of the Afghan army were burned. Government soldiers quickly appeared on the scene, and there was firing. Between 15 and 20 deaths were reported on both sides.

Unable to quell the rioting, a dozen Afghan MIG-17s were called in. According to reports, they strafed the area, apparently intending to disperse rather than kill the demonstrators. "Still, there were a few casualties," said one observer.

From then on, large numbers of Afghan troops and military vehicles appeared in the streets. Jeeps drove through the town with loudspeakers appealing to the population to remain calm. The crowds began breaking up.

Shortly afterward, however, three Soviet technical advisers at a nearby textile mill (who, oddly enough, were shopping in the bazaar for New Year's purchases) were attacked and lynched by a frenzied mob. Russian families living in a UN residential complex just off the airport road were immediately evacuated.

On New Year's Day, the Soviet invasion proper of Kandahar reportedly began. Numerous transport planes and helicopters flew into the airport. Heavy air traffic continued for two days, but the Russians apparently seldom if ever set foot in the town itself.

Heavy air traffic was resumed this past week. Observers suggest that the Soviets are preparing to move into the neighboring barren mountains along the Pakistan border in an attempt to break rebel resistance there. Unconfirmed reports say that fierce fighting has occurred in the arid desert mountains east of Kandahar.

Before our return to Pakistan, we managed to enter the restricted Kandahar airport area. Five heavy Soviet transport planes marked with the red star were being unloaded or loaded along the slipways near the main road.

Over a 30-minute period, no less than one dozen Soviet MI-24 helicopter gunships flew in, landed for several minutes without cutting their motors, and then took off again for easttern Afghanistan. As they were hidden from view while landing, it was impossible to determine what operations were being carried out.

During the same period, a MIG-23 with Soviet markings and a MIG-17 bearing the red Afghan circle also took off and roared away toward the east. Apart from there Soviet tanks making their way toward the border along the highway, we saw no other signs of significant military activity.

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