THE guns usually open fire at dusk, as the sun sets in the craggy peaks overlooking Kabul and the muezzin calls the Muslim faithful to prayer.
The shooting often continues through the night in the Afghan capital as rival factions in the country's civil war pound each other's positions with shells, rockets, and heavy machine guns.
By morning, fresh casualties arrive in local hospitals already overflowing with wounded. Residents emerge from makeshift bomb shelters to survey the damage. And battered old Mercedes buses depart for the relatively peaceful south of the country, carrying those fleeing the embattled city. They often depart with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Two years after mujahideen guerrillas toppled the Soviet-backed government in Kabul and set up an Islamic republic, Afghanistan has yet to see an end to war. Since the guerrilla's victory in May 1992, hope has given way to despair as the mujahideen groups, who once fought side-by-side against the Soviets, turned their vast arsenals of Russian and US-made weapons on each other.
``There are people who waited for the coming of the mujahideen. Now they are suffering,'' Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani admitted to the Monitor in a recent interview. ``They have a right to complain.''
Mr. Rabbani and his top general, Ahmed Shah Masoud, are at war with the nominal prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in a conflict tinged by ethnic and religious rivalry but driven primarily by a struggle for power. Efforts by neighboring Pakistan to mediate have so far come to nothing.
The war is being fought on many fronts throughout Afghanistan: from the fertile south of the country to the strategic highways running north to the former Soviet Union.
But nowhere has the destruction been so reckless and so savage as in Kabul, where much of the city's rich architectural heritage has been laid to waste by the fighting.
The Presidential Palace has been wrecked by shelling; the Justice Ministry has been turned into a bunker; the Central Bank is abandoned: and the azure dome of the city's grand Haji Yacub Mosque has been blackened by fire. Most of the animals in the zoo have been killed, and the National Museum has been looted and burned. ``Kabul is burning, and I'm dying with her,'' is the refrain of a popular Afghan song that can be heard playing in Kabul's few remaining tea cafes.
Since January, the shifting front-line cut through the city's ancient bazaar district, which is now a no-man's-land of rubble and shattered buildings. Kalashnikov-toting guerrillas, a law unto themselves, prowl the area. The scent of tea and oriental spices that once permeated the air has been replaced by gunpowder and hashish - the drug favored by guerrillas as a source of fighting courage.
``There is no government in Kabul,'' says a Kabuli intellectual who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals. ``It's the law of the jungle prevailing. The mujahideen are drunk with power, and for power.''
The human toll has equaled the architectural damage. Since January, when some of the worst fighting occurred, one-third of the city's population of about 1.1 million has fled, mainly to the southern city of Jalalabad, where relief organizations have set up vast camps for displaced people. Some 3,000 Kabuli residents have been killed and 19,500 wounded in the same period, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The vast majority of casualties have been civilian.
``All this fighting is heavy artillery. No infantry, just indiscriminate shelling, which means for the population it's just terrible,'' says Jean-Luc Metzger, an ICRC official. ``It's like an Asian Sarajevo.''
In Karte Se Hospital, one of the city's leading surgical centers, 12-year-old Nader Shah sits propped up against a pillow. The sleeves of his blue pajamas hang limp at his sides where the arms are missing. He also lost one eye. ``There was a mine in the garden. He went and played with it, and it exploded,'' explains the boy's mother.
In the next room, 16-year-old Khalil Khanif is recovering from a bullet wound to the chest. ``I was walking ... on my way to the mosque. Suddenly I was shot,'' he says. ``I never saw who did it.''
For the roughly 800,000 people who still inhabit Kabul, life is a daily struggle for survival. Electricity, telephone service, and running water were knocked out long ago by the fighting, and the hand-pumped wells that provide most of the city's drinking water are being steadily polluted by seepage of human waste. Half the remaining population has been uprooted from other areas of the city by fighting and has sought temporary refuge in overcrowded schools, mosques, or private homes.
At Khojah Abdullah Ansari Mosque in north Kabul, temporary home to some three-dozen families, a mother of four recounts how her eldest son was killed when Uzbek militiamen - allies of Mr. Hekmatyar's opposition forces - invaded and ransacked her home.
``We built our house, and in one day it was burned and looted. What can we do?'' says Rogul, her voice cracking with emotion. With her husband out of work and no other source of income, they live on a diet of tea and nan, the traditional flat Afghan bread. Their surviving children are lean with hunger, and the air is stifling, since water is unavailable for washing or sanitation.
``They've lost their jobs, they've lost their belongings. Everybody who had something has sold it to buy food,'' says ICRC worker Ariane Curdy. ``Nearly 100 percent of the displaced people I have met were borrowing money, either from relatives or shopkeepers. They are desperate.''
Even obtaining the basic necessities of life can be hazardous. Since February, the opposition has imposed a food blockade on government-held areas to try to starve out Rabbani's forces. Residents in the government districts must travel to opposition-controlled areas to buy such staples as rice, flour, fuel, and cooking oil. Returning home, they may be stopped at opposition checkpoints on suspicion of carrying supplies to the enemy.
``Every week I have this problem,'' says Gul, another Kabul resident. She had been waiting several hours in the midday sun with a sack of flour and a container of kerosene after being refused passage back to the government-controlled part of town where she lives.
``The mujahideen said to me, `The government supports the troops with this flour,' '' she says. ``I am a refugee. I bought this for my family.''
If there is anything that sustains Kabul's exhausted residents in the face of hardship and suffering, it is the hope that the outside world - chiefly the United Nations - will intervene to stop the conflict.
But it is an increasingly forlorn hope. The UN pulled out of Kabul in January, and most foreign embassies are shut. A UN envoy visited Afghanistan this spring on a fact-finding mission, but the world body is not expected to take any concrete action anytime in the foreseeable future. Only a handful of relief agencies - the ICRC, Doctors Without Borders, CARE, and the Halo Trust - remain to minister to the needs of the war-ravaged metropolis.
``A lot of countries that helped Afghanistan in the past have forgotten about their moral responsibilities,'' says President Rabbani ruefully. ``They don't even do humanitarian work.''