Dominated by Mir Samir, a towering, snow-capped peak on the southern fringe of the Hindu Kush mountains, the refugees struggle to negotiate the steep, rocky corridor that leads to the top of the 14,000-foot-high mountain pass.
There are some 500 refugees in the caravan, most of them Kandari nomads fleeing their flat, desert homeland in Kunduz Province, which borders the Soviet Union. Repeated Soviet air and ground assaults on their homes and livestock as well as conscription drives by the Afghan Army, they explain, have made it impossible for them to stay.
Over the past two or three years, Red Army troops have also increasingly blocked the more traditional passes for weeks or months on end. This has forced Afghans to seek alternate overland routes for their caravans such as this treacherous highland trail.
Flanked by women in embroidered red dresses and dark shawls shepherding children, some of them barefoot, the men prod reluctant horses, donkeys, and dromedaries into climbing the final few yards. Ominously strewn among the boulders on either side are the decomposing bodies of animals that have slipped and fallen. Once over, the refugees gingerly descend the several thousand feet to the inviting pastures of the Pashal Valley below.
For nearly four hours last Aug. 17, this correspondent watched together with a CBS-TV crew as the straggling caravan laden with tea kettles, pots, rugs, and tents crept through the narrow gap. Apart from the shrill whistles and shouts of the drivers or the occasional roar of an affronted camel, the only other sound to mar the tranquility of the warm and sunny afternoon was the constant drone of a Soviet Antonov reconnaissance plane.
Toward the end of the day, we crossed into the next valley. It was then that the first pair of MIG-27 ground attack fighters arrived. Thundering up the nearby Panjshair Valley from Baghram, a key Soviet air base some 50 miles to the south, they swooped down to bomb where the refugees were massed. As they drew out, a second pair emerged from behind Mir Samir. For the next 20 minutes, we heard the dull roar of explosions.
Making our way down the Panjshair, we continued to see and hear the planes for several days as they returned to bomb and strafe both sides of the pass where further groups of refugees were still trying to cross. The attacks were always obediently followed by the two-propeller Antonov dispatched from Baghram to inspect the damage, which, according to resistance reports reaching us in the valley, involved heavy losses.
Some 10 days later, this correspondent returned to the Chamar area. Trekking at night (both refugees and mujahideen, or holy warriors, were now only crossing after dark), I encountered the first signs of tragedy several miles before the pass in the form of half a dozen dead camels and horses. By dawn, I reached the top of the Chamar to discover that the MIGs had also attacked the tail end of the very column we had previously watched. In both cases, herdsmen and partisans camping nearby maintained, the refugees had been badly hit.
But the most devastating was an attack on Aug. 18 that lasted one and a half hours in the Pashal Valley itself. Having reached the valley floor by early evening the day before, the nomads had pitched a sprawling camp by the side of the river. Shortly after first light, the Antonov appeared and made several passes over their distinctive black tents, smoking fires, and grazing animals before returning to base. Few Afghans recognize the danger of reconnaissance aircraft and rarely take necessary precautions. No one bothered to hide.
The MIGs took the refugees completely by suprise. Appearing at 10 in the morning, the swing-wing fighters first unloaded two bombs each, believed to be 500-pounders, and then made repeated runs firing rockets and strafing with their 23mm Gatling guns. Nine women and five children were killed instantly and more than 60 injured, many of them severely. Overall, by the time the Soviets completed their attacks in the area, at least 40 refugees had died.
''It was horrible,'' said Hajii Saduddin, a highly respected village leader from Bazarak in the Panjshair who had been hiding out for several months with a group of families further down the valley. Appalled, they had watched the raid and then rushed up to the camp to help.
''We have seen a lot of war, but nothing like this,'' said Mr. Saduddin. ''People were screaming and lying all around. Many had lost their hands, their feet, arms, and legs. The tents were burning and there was an awful smell in the air.''
The signs of carnage later witnessed by this correspondent lent only partial testimony as to the ruthlessness of the onslaught. Dozens of mutilated animal cadavers, twisted metal pots, scorched clothing, torn saddles, and a tattered boy's slingshot littered the ground, itself churned by shrapnel or ripped in long furrows by machine gun bullets.
With the little they had, the Panjshairis helped treat the victims. Later, they buried the dead in a yawning bomb crater, covering the bodies with a tarpaulin and then piling stones on top in the Muslim manner. A single prayer flag, a piece of green, pink, and orange cloth hanging from a wooden tent pole, and a inscription headed by a quote from the Koran recorded the massacre.
More refugees died of their wounds and were buried on their journey through the mountains to Pakistan, where the first survivors were expected to arrive by late September.
For more than two years, numerous reports have emerged concerning a systematic terror campaign by the Soviet occupation forces against noncombatants. More recently, this has included deliberate attacks on civilians already trying to leave the country. While traveling through northeastern Afghanistan this summer, this correspondent encountered numerous refugees with tales of bombings and strafings. Rarely have outside observers been in the position to confirm such assaults. Considering that the reconnaissance plane had been tracking the refugees for several days, it is almost impossible that the Soviets could have mistaken them for mujahideen or a supply caravan.
One can also assume that after nearly five years of occupation, Soviet intelligence analysts are suitably informed to make such distinctions. Not only were the women and children wearing bright colors, but the style of tents and the variety of animals including herds of sheep and goats could only suggest civilians.
The Soviets have consistently denied that they are responsible for such atrocities. The Red Army's ''limited contingent'' (at least 110,000 troops) in Afghanistan, the Soviets normally maintained, is only serving with the Afghan Army on a support or advisory basis and is not directly involved in the struggle against ''counterrevolutionaries.'' In reality, the Afghan Army still largely suffers from an exorbitant desertion rate and is considered grossly unreliable by the Soviets who must take the brunt of the fighting.
If refugee accounts are to be believed, then the Pashal attack has been only one of many. The arrival of its survivors in Pakistan should enable the International Committee of the Red Cross or the United Nations to conduct a thorough investigation into this gruesome expansion of Moscow's already widespread policy of ''migratory genocide.''
Furthermore, while the International Red Cross has been performing a valuable service for injured Afghans through its specialized war casualty hospitals in Pakistan, the Pashal and other testimony should at last prompt some form of direct intervention in favor of the civilian population. Until now, the Swiss humanitarian agency has failed to obtain access to Afghanistan since a visit of dubious credibility to Kabul's Puli Charkhi prison in the summer of 1982.
But the deliberate bombing of refugees is but one aspect of Moscow's hardening repression of noncombatants.
''Basically, the Soviets have launched what is for them a very easy war against the people,'' observed a recently returned doctor of Aide Medicale Internationale, a Paris-based medical organization operating relief missions inside Afghanistan. ''It has become a tragic situation. The economic structures are so fragile that if the people lose a little, they lose everything. Unable to survive, their only choice is to leave.''
Soviet tactics are now aimed at totally destroying the civilian infrastructure - farms, houses, bazaars, mosques, schools, and clinics - in zones where resistance fronts have been particularly well-organized.
''It does not take much to realize what the Russians are trying to do,'' added a spokesman of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in Peshawar, Pakistan , another organization involved in direct relief operations to the interior. ''They are turning every region that does not bend to their will into a wasteland.''
With relentless perseverance, Soviet planes and heliborne troops have sought to hunt down dissenting civilians while threatening nearby populations with reprisals if they in any way aid or abet both guerrillas and refugees. In numerous areas, the land lies deserted. Whole villages have been transformed into uninhabitable ghost settlements through the bombing and looting of houses, the burning of crops, and the cutting off of valuable water supplies by rupturing or mining the irrigation canals.
''You can't believe how sad it makes me to see my country like this,'' said Mehmed Ali, a former hotel employee from Kabul and a member of the Panjshair resistance. ''This used to be a beautiful country. A poor country, but a very beautiful one. Now look at it.''
Most relief workers and observers who have visited Afghanistan recently say the next few months will be crucial for areas such as Paghman, Parwan, Badakhshan, Fariab, and Nangarhar. Nevertheless, the urgency of the Afghan predicament continues to be ignored by most governments and aid groups.
The vast bulk of present international assistance goes to Pakistan's refugees , estimated at more than 3 million. To the irritation of many resistance fronts but the encouragement of certain fundamentalist Afghan and Pakistani groups, for example, much Arab money is being lavished on expensive new mosques and Koranic schools among the refugee camps rather than on more vital food, clothing, and medication for the interior.
The principal relief agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, must, by nature of its charter, restrict itself to refugee rather than internal aid. But the lack of action by other organizations to assist those inside is likely to result in further influxes of refugees. This reporter encountered between 100 and 500 Afghans a day fleeing the country, mainly from the northern frontier provinces which until recently have produced a relatively light exodus.
As with resistance commanders elsewhere, Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Panjshair Valley has appealed for a large-scale emergency aid program. But he has warned that unless this can be mounted in the weeks ahead to assist the more than 100, 000 civilians living among the side valleys and mountains of his region, he will be obliged to order many of them to leave for Pakistan before the onset of winter.
''We shall do everything we can to keep them,'' the young leader explained in a recent interview, ''but we just don't have the food and money. If they go, then the Soviets will have achieved their objective in forcing our people out.''
According to some relief sources, a coordinated emergency aid program for Afghanistan need only cost several million dollars but would have to be funneled directly to the interior rather than via the political parties in Peshawar.
It would also depend largely on the Afghans themselves. The French medical agencies have complained that resistance fronts often fail to realize the importance of full cooperation in providing relief. In some areas, security for the medical teams has become sloppy, supplies are lost or stolen, and some groups regularly demand payment for protection or other forms of assistance.
''Basically, the Afghans must get their act together and not always think that it is up to the outside world to help them,'' said one British relief coordinator. ''If they want assistance, they must do something for it. Above all , they must improve their organization which quite frankly is more often than not disastrous. Sacrifices must be made by both sides to make it work.''