(Date: 2001-11-05 10:15:21)
Topic: War & Terrorism
Los Angeles Times
QUETTA, Pakistan -- Sardar Bibi Khan, a farmer from southern Afghanistan, never thought much about America other than as a place that helped his country overthrow the Russians, but one month into the U.S. bombing campaign his view has changed.
Khan, 35, said he came to Pakistan to find medical aid for a sister whose arm was shattered when an American helicopter fired a missile at her house. When the rest of the family rushed outside to seek safety, the helicopter fired on them, killing six of her seven children and her husband, Khan said.
"Before the bombing, the Taliban was always saying that Americans were enemies of Muslims and of Islam, and we did not believe that," Khan said as he paced the dingy halls of the government hospital here.
"But nowadays, when [the U.S.-led forces] are killing innocent people, we believe that what the Taliban was saying about America is true: They are trying to kill Muslims and finish Islam."
Khan's disillusionment with America--and a newfound sympathy for his nation's Taliban regime--is shared by a number of Afghans in what aid and human rights workers say is a palpable shift in views since the bombing began. In interviews here, Afghans did not express broad support for the Taliban forces, but rather empathy with them because they, like the people of Afghanistan, appear to be victims of global politics beyond their control. In the long term, however, almost everyone interviewed said, they wanted to see the Taliban overthrown and a convocation of tribal leaders, known as a loya jirga, called to create a new government.
"There's an increased feeling that the West doesn't care about what's happening to Afghan civilians," said Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"And as the bombing goes on, people feel more personally threatened, and they don't see where the campaign is going or when their lives will return to normal," he said.
Those sentiments were repeated in dozens of stories from recently arrived Afghans in Quetta, most of whom are not counted officially as refugees. Rather, they are exiles from their native country who travel back and forth and would return permanently to Afghanistan if they could make a living there. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that about 100,000 Afghans have entered Pakistan unofficially since the bombing campaign began. Only 2,400 are registered refugees, said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the relief agency.
It is impossible to say with any certainty what people are feeling within Afghanistan because it is difficult for reporters to get into the country, and when they do, it is under heavy Taliban escort. However, interviews with Afghans who have arrived in Pakistan in the last few days provide at least a barometer of the mood.
"Before the bombing, most people were not in favor of the Taliban," said Abdul Wahab, a shopkeeper in Kandahar, the city in southern Afghanistan that is the spiritual headquarters of the fundamentalist Islamic regime.
"But now that America is bombing, people are saying, 'We were your enemy, but now we are with you and will support you.' I was not in favor of the Taliban, but now that they are fighting to save our soil from foreign troops, I have some sympathies with them."
Wahab arrived Sunday in Quetta, a city about three hours from the Afghan border, to see if he could find enough work to support his nine children. Like many Afghans who illegally cross the border, he is staying with an Afghan tribal leader-in-exile who functions as a kind of mayor of a community of Afghans on Quetta's outskirts.
Wahab, 42, a dignified man with high cheekbones and blue eyes, was one of about eight arrivals at the tribal leader's home over the weekend who offered a hopeless portrait of life in Afghanistan since the bombing began. Last week, the Americans bombed the electrical grid in Kandahar, knocking out all the power, Wahab said. The Taliban managed to divert some electricity to the city from a generating plant in another province. But the Americans bombed the dam that drove the generating plant.
Now, Wahab says, "there is nothing but darkness."
For Wahab, the owner of an electrical goods shop, without power there is no demand for the products he sells, so, like eight or 10 other Kandahar Afghans with electrical shops, he closed his store and headed for the Pakistan border. With his livelihood essentially wiped out by the bombing campaign, it is hardly surprising that he has little sympathy for Americans.
Abdul Qudar, 35, had a similar story. He ran a hotel in a town near the Pakistani border. But now the only people coming through are refugees who are saving their money to bribe the guards to let them cross into Pakistan. No one stops anymore for tea or food.
"Now people are angry at America because they have destroyed our houses and they are forcing us to leave and to come here in Pakistan as refugees. I brought my family, but I couldn't bring any of my belongings. I have nothing now," Qudar said.
Like a number of Afghans, both men expressed support for the country's exiled former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, and his efforts to convene a loya jirga to choose a new leader for Afghanistan. The Taliban views support for a loya jirga as tantamount to treason since the gathering is aimed at ending its control of the country.
Some Afghans, however, are simply angry. Ghazi Mohammed, 19, who farms watermelon and hemp outside Kandahar, plans to return home after accompanying a cousin to Pakistan. He gathered his large brown shawl around him as the cold winter air blew through the mud and plaster house where he was talking with other recent arrivals.
"When they started the bombardment I joined the Taliban," he said.
"I hate America because they are non-Muslim. When I go back I will join the Taliban again and I will fight," he said.
Mohammed said he was particularly upset when he saw that the U.S. had bombed the cars of civilians as they were driving.
"Did they think that Osama [bin Laden] or Mullah [Mohammed] Omar [supreme leader of the Taliban] was in one of them? I do not like America. They are bombing families and hitting vehicles," he said.
The animosity is a warning sign that the international alliance fighting terrorism risks driving Afghan civilians into the arms of the Taliban, aid workers said.
"The thing that it is important for the United States to think about is that they don't want a hostile Afghanistan two years from now, so it's very important for the Western alliance to make it clear that they distinguish between the military campaign against [the terrorist network] Al Qaeda and Afghan civilians. From the Afghans I've talked to, that message is not getting across," Bouckaert said.
Abdul Sattar, a longtime Afghan exile who lives in Pakistan and runs a nongovernmental organization that removes land mines in Afghanistan, is saddened and resigned to the plight of his countrymen. He sees it as a continuation of the last 22 years of war and devastation in his country in which the biggest losers have been the Afghan people.
"When there is bombing in people's villages, of course they are not happy. We are the victims of Washington and New York's World Trade Center [disasters] just as we were the victims of the Cold War," Sattar said, referring to the former Soviet Union's ultimately unsuccessful effort to maintain control over the country, which lasted from 1979 to 1989.
"We are a Third World country, we have very little education, but still we have our own way of life. We have had our own government, we are not terrorists [and], if it were up to us, as Afghans, we would ask all non-Afghans to get out of the country, all of them, and leave us alone."
Reprinted from The Los Angeles Times:
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