In Afghan Civil War, Toll On Capital Is Great After Four Years Of Rocketing, Bombing And Street Fighting, Most Of Kabul Is Rubble.

Posted: January 31, 1997

KABUL, Afghanistan — Two Afghan fighters leaped into the city zoo's lion enclosure last year on a bet. The men succeeded in petting the female's head, but the male attacked. Only one Afghan made it out alive.

Seeking revenge, the brother of the dead man came to the zoo the next day with a hand grenade. The lions survived the blast, but the male now stumbles blind and ratty around his lair.

Many other zoo animals have fared even worse in war-crippled Kabul. Herds of deer and gazelle were gunned down and cooked, as were hundreds of exotic birds. Those few animals still on display - boars, bears and monkeys - survive largely because eating them is said to be against Islamic law.

The Kabul zoo - once a pleasant, well-designed place in a cosmopolitan city - is today a grim symbol of the ruin of Afghanistan's once-proud capital.

After more than four years of rocketing, bombing and street fighting, vast sections of the city have been reduced to rubble. International aid groups estimate that two-thirds of Kabul is destroyed.

The human toll has been equally great.

Tens of thousands of people have died in Kabul since the communist government fell in 1992 and various mujaheddin groups began fighting for power after defeating the Soviet army and the Moscow-supported Afghan regime. The city now houses at least 30,000 war widows, aid workers say, and one in 20 Kabulis has lost a leg to land mines. Polio is on the rise.

With factories destroyed and markets in shambles, unemployment is said to be about 90 percent. The city has been essentially without schools or running water for years, and the electricity came back on only recently. There is no phone service. The Afghan currency is nearly worthless: The afghani, which exchanged at 2,000 to the dollar five years ago, is at 26,000 to the dollar today.

Half of the 1.2 million people still in Kabul survive only because of emergency rations from the World Food Program, the Red Cross and other international agencies.

Even Afghanistan's storied past - the remains of centuries of invasions and creativity from the likes of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Emperor Babur - has been lost. The Kabul Museum was plundered several years ago, and the treasures of Afghanistan have now left the country.

A relative peace has come to Kabul since the Taliban Islamic Movement took over in September, expelling the other warring mujaheddin groups. But rockets still fly and bombs still fall: Part of the stone wall surrounding the long-empty U.S. Embassy was smashed earlier this month by a falling bomb, and several people died.

The fragility of the peace is one reason that the many nations that helped arm Afghanistan's warring parties - notably Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan - are less interested in giving aid to Kabul now.

Many believe the civil war is far from over, although the Taliban now controls more than three-quarters of the country. But even if the Taliban did impose a stable government, the ruling mullahs have alienated many potential donors with their extreme version of Islamic law and harsh treatment of women.

``Kabul desperately needs help right now, but there is no international consensus on what to do and how to do it,'' said Ross Everson, Kabul director of ACBAR, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief. The group was one of dozens that met in neighboring Turkmenistan last week for a U.N.-sponsored conference on Afghanistan.

``Many people are going to this meeting eager to help Afghan people, but also eager to teach the Taliban a lesson by withholding aid,'' Everson said recently. ``And when it comes to rebuilding the country - and Kabul in particular - I really don't know if it's time yet. Anything built now could easily be destroyed again.''

Many in Kabul agree. ``It will take a generation before the fighting stops,'' a bookseller predicted. Others say it will take a century.

Kabul is an inherently beautiful place. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the city spreads through a high, wide and fertile valley.

Its strategic location - between the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, between Russia and the Indian Ocean - has brought in conquerors by the score. But during the Cold War, that crossroads site also made Afghanistan and its capital important international real estate.

Untold millions in foreign aid flowed in from the United States, the Soviet Union, Germany, France and Britain, whose governments hoped their generosity would translate into influence and realignment. The Kabul zoo, for instance, with its innovative animal enclosures and thick walls, was built by West Germany for the son of a former Afghan ruler. Foreign aid also built most of the roads, dams, water systems and airports of Afghanistan.

Civil war erupted in 1979, but unlike the Afghan countryside, Kabul was spared serious destruction for years. Thousands of Soviet troops, supporting their puppet Afghan president, kept the mujaheddin fighters far enough from the city that their rockets were little more than a nuisance.

That all changed in 1992, when the communist government of Najibullah fell and the mujaheddin marched into the capital. Buildings associated with the Russians were leveled as tanks pulled up in front of them and pounded away.

But soon after taking power, the mujaheddin coalition began to unravel, and fighters turned against one another. Armed with tons of modern weapons, they moved into Kabul's neighborhoods, and began destroying the city block by block.

Over the next four years, a dizzying array of factions battled one another. The forces of legendary anti-Soviet fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud squared off against the more fundamentalist troops of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Northern warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had commandeered much of the old Russian-made air force, threw his support to one side, then another. The ethnically Mongol Shiite minority went to war against the ethnically Pushtun rulers in Kabul. And finally the Taliban Islamic Movement laid siege to Kabul before finally taking over last fall.

Legend has it that Kabul was named for the world's first murder - the slaying by Cain of Abel. The city has certainly lived up to that infamous precedent.

During the war years, half of Kabul's population fled the city. All but a handful of embassies from Islamic countries also closed, so that now the only international presence in what was once a cosmopolitan capital is that of foreign-aid organizations such as CARE and Save the Children. With their agency flags flying from their four-wheel-drive vehicles, the aid groups have essentially taken over the role of foreign governments.

The ruin of Kabul seems especially poignant on a southern hillside of hard-packed mud, dead tree stumps and bomb craters. A once-elegant pavilion has collapsed, and an ancient alabaster tomb - surrounded by white marble pillars and covered by a red tile roof - is scarred with bullet holes.

This desolate site, once the most beautiful park in Kabul, is the final resting place of the 16th-century Emperor Babur. The founder of the great Mogul empire, which once ruled Asia from Persia through India, Babur ordered that he be buried in Kabul because of its pleasant climate and luscious fruits.

The multi-acre garden surrounding the tomb once featured roses and daffodils, flowering fruit trees, and a swimming pool. Afghans say it used to be a favorite place for family picnics and for young lovers to meet - back before the war made it dangerous and the Taliban made it illegal for unrelated young men and women to meet in public.

Alongside the park is a centuries-old building, once a castle but now in ruins. A walk toward the castle was recently stopped by a breathless watchman.

``Don't walk there,'' he called out. ``That place is mined. It used to be the front line. Last week, a boy entered and now he has no leg.''

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