EVERY evening for the past two weeks, just as dusk fades into darkness, the sky over the Afghan capital has been lit up by red tracer bullets and an occasional burst from an anti-aircraft shell.
Viewed from the mountains surrounding the capital, the tiny tracers seem innocent enough, climbing lazily skyward, something like seeing hundreds of bubbles floating to the top of a glass of soda water. However, the surreal scene is accompanied by the terrifying rat-tat-tat of machine guns.
Firing tracers straight up in the air to celebrate the coming to power of an Islamic government after 14 years of communist rule in Afghanistan has become a ritual for the mujahideen, who took over the city two weeks ago. But for the estimated 2 million civilians crammed into Kabul, the nightly half-hour tracer show represents a deadly hazard. Up to 5 percent of all casualties in recent days have been wounded by the so-called "celebration fire," as the bullets fall back to earth, Red Cross officials say.
"We get many children in the evening ending up with a bullet through the head. We've had at least a dozen such cases in the past few days," says Jillian Biddolph, the medical coordinator of the International Red Cross hospital in Kabul. More upheaval
The tracer threat is only part of the upheaval civilians are experiencing as the new mujahideen government settles into power. Under the former communist regime, the city was a relatively safe haven for Afghans seeking to escape the violence of the 14-year civil war, coming under only an occasional rocket attack. Now, under Islamic authorities, Kabul has become a battleground, as heavily armed mujahideen factions jockey for influence in the new power structure.
One foreign diplomat says the danger to the civilian population in Kabul is greater than at any time since the 10-year Soviet Army occupation of Afghanistan that began in 1979.
"During the Soviet occupation the threat to the city came mainly from rockets. Now we are also talking about artillery and street fighting," the diplomat says. "Some sections of the city have been badly damaged."
A cease-fire that began May 6 has eased tension somewhat among the civilian population. Many stores have reopened and people, on foot and on bicycles, have been clogging the streets. But the failure of most pupils to show up for school Saturday, the first day of classes in more than two months, was an indication that many remain anxious.
"Most students are afraid the fighting will start again and are staying home," says Masoud Ahmad, a pupil at Habiya High School in the capital.
Despite the cease-fire, thousands have fled the city in recent days, trying to avoid getting caught up in further intra-mujahideen fighting. The desire to escape is greatest in the hard-hit southern section of the city. Dozens of artillery rounds and rockets fell on the area last week, killing dozens, destroying mud-and-straw structures, and littering the narrow alleys with shattered glass and debris.
"I'm going to live with my sister in the northern part of the city," said Muhammad Anwar, a bus driver who was evacuating his family of six as the region came under an intense artillery and rocket barrage last week.
"It's not safe here," Mr. Anwar added, a bundle of family possessions on his back. "I don't know why the mujahideen leaders are fighting. I only want peace." Turf battles
Trying to find peace in the capital is a difficult proposition. The city has been carved up by several mujahideen factions. Arms and ammunition are omni-present. Scores of mujahideen wander the sidewalks with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic rifles resting on their shoulders. Others sit idly at street corners or at checkpoints, their weapons propped between their legs.
Toyota pickup trucks with mujahideen packed in the back constantly cruise the streets. An occasional armored vehicle, mujahideen piled on top, tears up the asphalt as it races around the city with no apparent destination.
Despite the numerous difficulties, the mujahideen occupation has had some positive benefits for civilians.
Food prices have plummeted, for example. Many foodstuffs such as eggs and tomatoes, which were unaffordable to most just a few months ago, are now within reach. A pound of tomatoes, which used to cost about 500 afghani (about $1) now goes for about 100 afghani at the city's bustling bazaar.
In addition, for the first time in years nomadic herders could be seen driving their flocks of sheep through city streets, heading for traditional pasture lands west of the city. The civil war had prevented the herders from using the grazing areas, some say.
In a scene unknown during the communist era, a group of six herders squatted on the overgrown lawn at the Foreign Ministry in downtown Kabul, and cut the grass with their sickles.
"We are very glad the Islamic government has come to power," says Muhammad Alim, one of the herders. "Before no one was even permitted to stand in front of the Foreign Ministry building. The entire street was closed off. Now we are allowed to come here to collect grass for our animals."