A tense wait near Afghan border

Parents of aid workers, whose trial may resume Sunday in Kabul, are among worried families.

An Afghan 12th grader thinks of a grandmother in Kabul she has never met. American parents from Texas pray here for a daughter now on trial in a Taliban court. A college student waits for any word of his Afghan sister. Aid workers have a faraway look. A Japanese journalist cruises the embassies hoping for an inkling of when "it" will happen.

Three weeks into a waiting game that is by turns tense, expensive, and perplexing, this capital is becoming a kind of Central Asian Casablanca.

A cast of characters from all over the globe sip tea, gossip, feast on huge Western buffets or humble kabobs. But they live in two worlds - one of which is 200 miles west, across the Khyber Pass, in Afghanistan.

Most are bracing for any military response to the devastating Sept. 11 terrorist attack that US officials believe was hatched from Afghanistan, and that potentially puts friends and family in harm's way.

Yet, as the wait progresses, opinion both on the street and in $2,000-an-hour TV studios is shifting from early notions that the US will "carpet bomb" feudal Afghanistan into further oblivion.

"Before, we thought they would bomb Afghanistan," says Muhammad Hanif, a shopkeeper in an Afghan neighborhood of Islamabad. "Now, it seems America will attack only the terror people."

Still, while many Afghans and Pakistanis worry about a punishing strike that will bring outrage and violence to the streets, a fair number of anti-Taliban Afghans worry that the US will not do enough.

"Things here are very tense. We don't know why this attack is taking so long to happen," says Sediq, a young Afghan from the Tajik ethnic minority who left the capital, Kabul, in 1998. "We want the US to do something good, something positive for Afghanistan. But we are worried that morale in the country may go down."

Until Sept. 11, American John Mercer and his ex-wife Deborah Oddy thought they had confronted the worst fear any parents could face. Their daughter, Heather Mercer, and her friend, Dayna Curry, had been arrested on Aug. 3 on charges of preaching Christianity to an Afghan family in Kabul - a serious offense in Muslim Afghanistan, particularly under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Within days, the Taliban had detained all the other aid workers - eight foreigners and 16 Afghan nationals - employed by Shelter Now, a German-based, Christian-led aid group that primarily builds housing and teaches job skills to the poorest of Afghanistan's poor.

When the trial of the foreign aid workers - two Americans, two Australians, and four Germans - began in early September, Mr. Mercer and Ms. Oddy were in the courtroom. But after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, they were told to leave, along with all US, German, and Australian diplomatic personnel.

A Pakistani lawyer representing the eight foreign aid workers yesterday said their trial could resume as early as Sunday. In an interview with CNN, Atif Ali Khan added that he expected the court to pass a light sentence. "In this matter, compassion will play a very big part and hopefully, they will get a small sentence, if any," he said.

Most contact inside Afghanistan has shut down. The Pakistan border is sealed. The Taliban government has banned satellite phones, calling them tools of the enemy. Here, some of the fortunate have made a call or two, but most contact is by hand-carried letters. News comes via mass media, diplomatic pouch, and, mainly, word of mouth - camp rumors, dinner talk.

The last letter from one Afghan father, an economist in Herat, to a son who did not want to give his name, arrived via friends a week ago, brought by the last team of aid workers to leave. The father told the son his mother was worried about him.

"About 10 people arrive every day, and about 10 people leave," says Daud Rawosh, the principal of a school for Afghan refugees in Islamabad. "We talk about nothing but the news."

Typical is Ajmal Sikandri, whose sister remains beyond the mountain ranges. "I wish she could be here," says Mr. Sikandri, a Tajik who came here in 1994. "My mother is crying for her to come and to take hold of her to her chest. But she cannot afford to come, and if we go, we can't come back to Pakistan."

Mercer says he doesn't worry so much about a US military attack, because "the US, like any nation, doesn't want to blow up innocent women and children, which is what would happen if they attack Kabul." He also doesn't feel the Taliban will use his daughter as a "human shield," as some have suggested. "We were told numerous times by Taliban officials that they consider these detainees as their guests. Being a guest of the Taliban and the Afghan people in general is a special thing."

After all, Mercer says, "Osama bin Laden has been their guest, too."

After 23 years of war, many Afghans seem inured to hardship. One young aid worker who lost an arm at age 10, during the 1992 siege of Kabul, and later lost his father, says he worries that Afghan friends who work for foreign nongovernmental organizations could be targeted in possible revenge killings.

Still, most Afghans say they would like to go back. But those who have lived outside their homeland for any length of time do not want to return to a state under Taliban rule. Twelfth-grader Zohra, for example, says her mother will not let her return to see family, because she never wants the young lady to wear the burqa, or full-body covering, one of many requirements for women imposed by the Taliban.

As parents who have suddenly learned much more than they expected about the politics and culture of Afghanistan, Mercer and Oddy say their chief concern is neither the US nor the Taliban, but the nearby forces of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's main domestic military opponent. "Heather worries about the Northern Alliance," says Oddy. "She told us she has trouble getting sleep at night because she can hear the rocket attacks. When she wakes up, she says a prayer of thanks that she can see another sunrise."

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