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Where Death Comes Cheap

Afghanistan in Winter

by CHRIS SANDS

in Kabul.

A crazy woman stalks the streets near Afghanistan’s parliament. When a warlord’s rocket killed her family during the early 1990s she lost her mind. Now she moves between the cars and people looking for it, another of the living dead trapped in her own private hell.

She’s always around there somewhere: in front of the homes still wrecked after they were destroyed more than a decade ago, next to the police station that was torched by a mob last year, in the gutter as an MP cruises by in his SUV.

That’s how life is here. Every corner has its own pitiful story and the old sorrow mixes with the new until it all becomes part of the same incessant sadness.

In December a man was shot in the centre of Kabul, not far from the presidential palace. His attackers stole the $25,000 they knew he would be carrying and left his corpse to freeze in the evening air. A week earlier an infant spilt boiling water over himself at home. He was buried in a simple ceremony soon afterwards.

Peace is only relative in a country where if the bombs and bullets don’t get you, something else will. The winter brings death from poverty and desperation, spring adds intense violence to the mix.

Last week George W. Bush stood before an audience of neocons at the luxurious Mayflower Hotel, Washington D.C., and said Afghans can now "begin to realise [their] dreams".

He praised the NATO-led forces, local soldiers and police for capturing and killing terrorists. "Times have changed," he added. "Our work is bringing freedom".

Speaking in London the day before, Tony Blair claimed "the most remarkable progress" had been made. By his side was Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who used the opportunity to thank the British prime minister for giving him a cuddly toy to take to his newborn son in Kabul.

Back here, the public clings to hope like a drowning person might hold onto some driftwood during a hurricane. Almost everyone realises the odds are stacked against a happy ending.

Talk of gangs dressed in police uniforms smashing into houses and killing the residents is surfacing in Kabul.

Threats against the occupation are spouted in the open now, not whispered behind closed doors. Devout young men complain about alcohol and prostitution being easily available, calling them a direct attack on Islam and a reason to join the insurgency.

Across the country people say the government is powerless and corrupt, the parliament ruled by warlords. They wonder when the development they were promised will actually start.

Last autumn an official at a large Western NGO told me he would not be surprised if the situation gets so bad all foreigners have to leave within a year or two. His colleague, who was tasked with helping plan the group’s potential evacuation, feared the airport in Kabul would be inaccessible when the time came to flee.

Even press statements sent out by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) during recent weeks occasionally hint at reality.

One said troops mistakenly shot an Afghan who worked at their base in Paktika, on the country’s eastern border.

Another acknowledged a local policeman had been killed in Kabul as a result of action involving an ISAF patrol. It promised a thorough investigation.

A third described a vehicle approaching a roadblock at high speed in the southern province of Helmand. Warning shots were fired at the ground only for them to ricochet and fatally hit a passer-by.

Just last Saturday a suspected suicide bomber was gunned down in Kandahar. When he was then checked for explosives it became clear he was unarmed. He later died of his wounds.

At the time of writing, three more innocent people have been killed in two separate incidents so far this week.

But these are still only a few examples of the civilian casualties caused by ISAF since the year started. Each tragedy will be bitterly remembered by a population still waiting for the peace, prosperity and freedom it is meant to have.

To growing numbers of Afghans, the NATO-led forces are an enemy similar to the Russians who tore this country apart in the 1980s. People even blame suicide attacks directly or indirectly on the soldiers.

Death comes cheap here. To go with the sadness, there is now fear and anger. Spring lies around the corner and time is almost up.

CHRIS SANDS is a British freelance journalist who has been working independently in Afghanistan since August 2005.