Afghans seethe under Soviet heel
The Afghan capital is comparatively quiet today, nearly two months after its citizens rose up in open rebellion against the Soviet takover. But it is the quiet of a city bristling and seething under foreign occupation. The population, as seen by this reporter, is bitter and sullen. The rule of the Moscow-imposed regime of President Babrak Karmal appears only tenuously stable.
Soviet troops now have largely removed themselves to barracks and other be hind-the-scenes positions. But there can be little doubt that Moscow's military might is the real power in Kabul.
A Soviet tank, for instance, had taken up a position not 50 yards from the hotel's front entrance.
Sound trucks constantly cruise the streets exhorting the masses to "defend the gains of the revolution." Yet the famed rooftop protests continue during the darkness of the Kabul night, showing the disdain with which many regard the so-called revolution.
Afghan government tanks and armored personnel carriers guard literally all major intersections and public buildings. And Soviet-piloted helicopter gunships -- the dreaded "flying tanks" that have claimed so many lives in both the capital and the provinces -- soar over the city almost hourly, reminding everyone that resistance will be dealth with swiftly and without mercy.
It is not always easy to gauge public opinion here, for citizens of Kabul are not exactly forthcoming in their political views these days, especially to strangers. But despite the rumored (and apparently real) efficiency of the secret police, I soon discovered the key that unlocked many closed mouths:
"I'm an American,"m stated clearly and often, was usually enough to start a lively conversation with an Afghan, notwithstanding the occasional glance over the shoulder to see if anyone suspicious was listening.
And it is not that Afghans love the United States. Indeed, they distrust the motives of all big powers. Rather, "Americai astum"m shows that the stranger is not a Russian, and almost no one cooperates with Russians in Kabul.
In fact, it is often quite dangerous to be mistaken for a Soviet citizen. Both Afghans and some of the few Westerners still living in Kabul warned me to stay away from the old bazaar and certain other areas of the city. Soviets have been assassinated lately, as have a few Westeners mistaken for Russians.
Still, public sentiment toward the Soviets and their client regime soon becomes obvious:
"We hate the Russians, but what can we do?" lamented one civil servant in a restaurant near the Ministry of Planning one day. "Why doesn't the world help us?"
Indeed, to most Afghans -- whether they be guerrilla fighters in the countryside or residents of the cities -- the international response to Moscow's takeover seems ineffectual. Humanitarian considerations aside, some people make a point of saying it is in other countries' own interests to help Afghanistan resist the Kremlin.
For most people, however, global considerations figure little in their determined opposition to the Russian presence. Rather, theirs is a hostility born of friends and loved ones killed or sent to the infamous Pul-i-Charki prison; an antagonism born out of the legendary Afghan love of independence and from the calamitous disruptions that foreign invasions invariably bring.
A textile merchant on Kabul's famous Chicken Street -- a center of trade with foreign importers -- complained, for instance, that the Soviet invasion last December had badly damaged his business.
"You are the only American I have seen in two months," he said. "Business now is finished, because no one can come here anymore."
In fact, during the half day I spent talking to shop owners on Chicken Street , I did not see a single foreigner. Most shops were empty. The multimillion-dollar tourist and export business has reportedly collapsed.
Another sign of the depth of public feeling against the Soviet-backed government was shown, interestingly enough, as I was temporarily arrested at Kabul airport on my way out of the capital (officials confiscated my film). Two airport workers took me aside and asked whether jobs and political asylum could be found in the United States.
"I don't want to live like this. . . . Afghanistan is finished," whispered one.
It was starting how many times people said they "didn't want to live any more ," or some phrase to that effect. But what at first seemed like the words of a dispirited people were later explained as proof that Afghans feel they have nothing left to live for but to fight the invaders to the death.
An example: Several people recounted one of the tactics used by protesters during the anti-Soviet insurrection in the capital last February. Apparently, men would walk up to government machine-gun emplacements and dare the Afghan gunners to kill them.
"When one man would fall, another would take his place," described one participant in the fighting. "They did this until the soldiers were so ashamed they ran away."
Incredible? Perhaps, but even one government supporter confirmed these same events.
To be sure, not all oppose the Soviet presence. I quickly found this out when, on my first night in Kabul, I took a room at the Darwaz Hotel -- now knowing it was a popular nightspot for pro-government youth, or Parchamism . By the time I realized this, the evening curfew was almost in effect, so changing hotels had to wait until the next day.
So, while assorted prostitutes, Parcham militants (some of them packing pistols), and even a few Russians mingled in the Darwaz bar, I struck up a conversation with two youths.
One, an engineering student, claimed there were many more job opportunities under the Karmal regime. Incredibly -- and perhaps in jest -- he said the reason the jobs picture had brightened is "because so many have died lately."
The next morning, I moved to the Plaza Hotel, scene of some of the most bitter fighting last February. The manager at the Plaza also defended the Karmal administration, though he admitted he hoped the Soviets would soon leave:
"Since [former President Hafizullah] Amin was overthrown, we have more freedom," he insisted. "I tell you honestly, you can go outside right now and tell any policeman you hate the government. He will not do a thing to stop you."
The regime talks of a "people's government." Yet I saw the notorious secret police arrest one man in the street.
The government celebrated Farmers Day in Kabul April 1 while crops and villages were being razed in saturation Soviet air attacks in the provinces.
The March 31 issue of the english-language Kabul New Times -- a wondrous example of Orwell's 1984 double-think -- carries a snappy article about the changing role of women in the "new society." Meanwhile, women and children are shot down as they flee tank and air attacks on villages near Jalalabad.
Probably the Kabul underground exists largely in embryonic form.
And for the average citizen, the guerrilla movement represents their hopes, though as yet these are somewhat distant hopes. "We know there are mujahideen [ Islamic guerrillas] here," one Kabul University student confided. "But we don't know where to find them."
Without a doubt, they are there, waiting. Waiting for that exposed Russian back, that isolated Army patrol, the unguarded gasoline dump. They are waiting and preparing for the next round of fighting.
And the population of Kabul, chafing under the Soviet occupation, waits too. They wait like a bomb waits for its fuse to be lit.