Afghan Border Town Thrives By Trading in Flour, Mercedes-Benz Autos

THIS is a town that war built. Just six years ago, Hayratan grew up as a frontier post to handle Soviet supplies that sustained Moscow's decade-long occupation of Afghanistan.

Three months after the last Soviet soldier departed across the Friendship Bridge here, this dusty depot is the lifeline for Kabul's pro-Moscow government.

A town of 4,000 civilians and an expansive military garrison, Hayratan has stacks of containers of flour, sugar, and vegetable oil, rows of military vehicles, piles of building materials, cement, and fertilizer, tanks of gasoline, and endless lots of Russian cars. Daily convoys are loaded to supply Kabul and other Afghan cities.

``Not just Kabul but many other cities rely on this port,'' says Mohebullah Sidiq, governor of Hayratan. ``The citizens of Hayratan city have witnessed the contribution of the Soviet Union.''

However, distributing the plenty of Hayratan is another matter. Supply trucks with military escorts must snake their way more than 300 miles through rugged mountains, running the risk of attacks by Western-backed guerrillas fighting the government of President Najibullah.

Since January, food and fuel supplies in the Afghan capital have been curtailed by mujahideen attacks and snow. Airlifts of food and medicine from the Soviet Union and India, plus an occasional convoy, provided some relief.

Of late, shortages and soaring prices have eased with a steady run of traffic into Kabul. The snow has melted, and government forces recently completed a new 25-mile diversion from the north-south Salang Highway, skirting Afghan guerrilla strongholds.

The Kabul bazaars overflow with consumer goods, available to anyone with enough cash. Thanks to the country's freewheeling style of business and smuggling, everything from Western kitchen appliances to Soviet combat equipment is on sale. A truckload of Mercedes-Benzes recently arrived.

Japanese electronic goods fill the markets, reflecting that country's status as Afghanistan's second largest trading partner even though the two nations don't have diplomatic relations. Japanese videocassette recorders and tape players are even being exported to Pakistan.

But although prices have fallen from since winter, basic commodities remain unaffordable for the average middle-class family of eight, which lives on about 3,000 Afghanis ($10) a month. Two pounds of rice costs one-tenth of that salary.

``Prices seem to have come down, but the cost of food is still out of the reach of many,'' says Ross Mountain, a UN official.

The UN and the Soviet Union are distributing some food supplies in Kabul. Earlier this year, special UN coordinator Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan issued a plea for emergency supplies. But the United States and other Western governments refused to support the program which they said would prolong Najibullah's rule.

In Kabul, Najibullah is struggling for credibility and trying to distance himself from the Soviet Union. Recently, he insisted that, despite the steady flow of Soviet aid, ``we are on our own.''

In Hayratan, however, Afghan officials urge even closer ties to Moscow. Pictures of Najib and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dot walls, and posters hail the two countries' friendship.

``All the requirements of the people of Afghanistan come from the Soviet Union ... So we should be proud of our friendly relations with the Soviet Union and try to enrich them,'' says Governor Mohebullah. ``This is the only policy in which one can see the peace and and prosperity of Afghans.''

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