Danger: Afghanistan: Learning To Live With Fear

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In the past two weeks, 21 civilians have died in the minefields of the Shomali Plain north of Kabul. Everyone knows about the mines. This was the front line between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and the road is flanked by red warning stones. But now the Taliban has gone, and people displaced by the war are moving back to the plain. "They know what the red stones mean, but they are going back for economic reasons," says Rafik Hayaty of the mine-clearing group Halo Trust, which put down the stones. "We cannot physically stop them."

There is a saying in Afghanistan: "Fear is the brother of death." After 22 years of war, Afghans have learned to deal with fear the hard way: they have raised their threshold of danger. Whether it be walking through mined areas to collect wood or stray animals, or standing above the trench lines while bullets are pinging through the air, Afghans have redefined levels of acceptable risk in ways that make outsiders shudder.

With the killing last week of a Swedish journalist during a robbery in the northern Afghan town of Taloqan, a total of eight foreign reporters have died in Afghanistan in the past month. The danger to journalists ratcheted up last week with reports that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, had offered a $50,000 reward for the death of any Western journalist. Since Tuesday no vehicles have been allowed closer than a quarter mile from the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul, where many journalists are staying, after the hotel received a "credible threat" of a planned bomb attack.

Afghans have been sympathetic about the deaths of the journalists but not shocked. "During these last years, we have seen a lot of bodies on our streets, so we are a little bit used to danger," said Ataullah Rauf, a professor of education at Kabul University. Some 2 million Afghans have died in the wars since 1979. Everyone has lost family members to Soviet bombs, mujahedin rockets or Taliban fighters.

Now the danger levels are rising again. Travel outside major towns has become particularly perilous. A minibus that was traveling last Thursday between Moqor and Ghazni, some 150 miles southwest of Kabul, was chased for 10 miles on the road by bandits firing rifles from a pickup. The bus escaped, but the passengers were shaken. "These men will steal anything, even your scarf," said a man on the bus. In many towns basic levels of security have broken down. In Jalalabad grain sent by the World Food Program is sitting in warehouses; conditions are too dangerous to distribute the food.

Everyday exposure to danger has hardened Afghans. "I have changed a lot," says Mohammed Zarif Azhar, a professor of political science at Kabul University. "When [the mujahedin] started rocketing Kabul [in 1992], I was scared by each explosion. I would shout for help if I found someone bleeding on the road. But now if I see a dying person, I don't care. I just walk by." Mines and unexploded ordnance are a daily hazard; on average three people are injured or killed by explosions every day in Afghanistan. But somehow, life goes on. Two weeks ago, a landlord in Kabul rented a house to an American TV network. One problem: he knew there was an unexploded 500-lb. bomb stuck in a kitchen closet. The TV crew had already moved in when U.N. mine clearers arrived and found the bomb. That's the Afghan way.

--By Terry McCarthy/Kabul