Ordinary Afghans stage silent protest against Soviets

The young Soviet lieutenant asked the shopkeeper for a bar of soap. ''Sorry,'' the elderly Afghan responded, ''no soap today.'' When the Soviet countered that he could clearly see soap on display, the shopkeeper said that it was all on order. The same thing happened with chocolate bars.

Without another word, the Soviet officer left the shop.

The incident was recounted by a recent visitor to the beleaguered Afghan capital. It is an example of the silent protest that ordinary Afghan citizens are staging against the three-year presence of the Soviet Army, which props up the Babrak Karmal regime.

Near the Soviet Embassy security was tripled earlier this year, reaching its highest level since the Russian occupation began.

Nonetheless, three buses were blown up April 27 by road mines near the embassy, according to Western diplomatic reports. The buses were carrying young members of the regime's Defense of the Revolution paramilitary group to a lavish parade celebrating Afghanistan's fifth anniversary under Marxist rule. Total casualty figures were not available, but 40 badly wounded youths were treated in one hospital alone.

And, if life is becoming more difficult for the Soviets, it is becoming even more untenable for the ordinary Afghan. One consolation has been the exit of a long, bitter winter with only sporadic supplies of gasoline and erratic electricity.

According to three sources who have just come out of Kabul, the black-market rate for Afghan currency has jumped to 92 afghanis for one US dollar. The official rate remains at 45. Government commissars are said to be scouring the black market and approaching foreign guests, desperately trying to buy foreign currency even at inflated prices.

''The shops,'' said one visitor, ''are a consumers' delight - that is, if you have money. They're stocked with color televisions, cameras, and videocassettes.

''Yet,'' he added, ''go to a grocery and you can't find paper products, milk, or edible oil. . . . One kilo (2.2 lbs.) of potatoes is now 40 afghanis. Previously it was between 3 and 4. A kilo of firewood, which used to sell for 8 to 10 afghanis, is now officially priced at 40, but you can't find it in the market for less than 65. . . .

''Thus, with a GNP (gross national product) per capita of $70 to $85 a year, it is becoming increasingly difficult for an ordinary Afghan to live.''

Continued fighting in the lush Logar Valley and in the Wardak Plain - once considered the granary of Afghanistan - has destroyed nearly all dairy farms. Scorched farmland and peasants' fear of venturing into the fields have also caused vast shortages of vegetables, wheat, and rice.

According to official figures, 40 percent of Afghanistan's total revenue is from the sale of natural gas to the Soviet Union; resistance groups say it is more like 60 percent. Yet the Soviets are buying at 40 percent below the international price, and until May 9 paid only in rubles if they paid in cash, say economic sources. Normally they simply subtracted the transaction from Afghanistan's spiraling debt with the Soviet Union.

Then, on May 2, much to the surprise of Western economists, Moscow paid the Kabul government $30 million for imports, the first such foreign currency transaction that Western officials could recall. The foreign exchange was reportedly meant to finance consumer goods for Soviet officers and basic staples for Soviet troops.

At night, Kabul plunges into eerie darkness. Power failures recur - sometimes due to acts of sabotage, sometimes due to the inadequacies of the electric utility system which has dropped electric current from 220 to 130 volts.

A curfew remains in effect from 11 p.m. until 4 a.m. Yet by 9 o'clock in the evening the central parts of the city are deserted. It is hard to find a young man of draft age walking the streets. They have either been inducted into the Afghan Army, joined the rebels, or gone into hiding.

But one thing that struck a recent visitor on his second official trip to Kabul was that this time the country's Islamic leaders were much in evidence. They were prominently seated at official functions; mosques were being repaired.

He wondered if perhaps a new official emphasis on religion was emerging. It would at least give the Marxist Kabul government, and the most fundamentalist Islamic groups in the Afghan resistance, something to discuss in the future - that is, if the day of discussion ever comes.

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