, Sep. 17, 2001

Afghans Wait, Scared

Women's Group Member Tells of Beleaguered People, Worried Over U.S. Attack

By Dianne Lynch

Sept. 17 The people of Afghanistan are waiting for war.

Thousands have fled their homeland, joining the communities of refugees already living in camps in Pakistan and Iran. Thousands more have gathered at the Pakistan border.

But the rest those millions of ordinary citizens without the resources to flee have no choice but to wait as the world's only superpower plans its retribution.

"The horror and fear of our people about the possible U.S. attack is unimaginable," says an Afghan woman who calls herself Mehmooda, communicating by e-mail in recent days. "It has been 10 years that our people have been frightened by the treacherous acts of these fundamentalists. U.S. retaliation would be another gruesome burden on our ill-fated people."

Mehmooda is one of about 2,000 members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a grassroots pro-democracy group whose work includes providing education, healthcare and economic opportunity to the country's most oppressed citizens: its women.

The group works out of its home base in the refugee camps along the Pakistan border. Members slip into Afghanistan to provide aid, to take video of public executions and floggings for posting on the Internet, and to gather intelligence. Under the law of the Taliban, who control the country, membership in RAWA is punishable by death.

Hate Mail From the United States

If life in Afghanistan has been bleak since the Taliban took power in 1996, its confrontation with the United States promises to make things worse still for the millions of ordinary Afghans who struggle each day just to survive. It is they who will pay for the sins of their leaders, says Mehmooda.

"[RAWA] has received some hate mail from the United States," she says, "but those who sent it don't know that we are also victims of the brutal Taliban. They don't understand that there is a big difference between our ordinary people and a handful of brutal sub-humans who rule our devastated country."

After years of murdering and torturing their own people, "killing a few thousand innocent Americans is a matter of joy for these terrorists," she says.

Few Afghans have seen the staggering images of passenger planes ripping through the World Trade Center towers. Television is banned, foreign newspapers are prohibited, and the official newspaper has no photographs: The Taliban says they are a violation of Islam.

Afghans get what little international information they can gather from the BBC and the Voice of America, where this week they heard reports of ultimatums and preparations for war. At home, on Taliban radio, they heard their own leader's stubborn refusal to surrender Osama bin Laden, the United States' prime suspect in the terrorism of Sept. 11.

It has been enough to push thousands of Afghans from their homes into neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Thousands more who cannot pay to cross the border have brought their families there to wait.

"On the Pakistan-Afghan border, each person has to pay a bribe to the border guards in order to cross," says Mehmooda. "According to people who crossed into Pakistan [Sunday], thousands of people who can't pay that much money are waiting on the border with their children."

'We Share Your Grief'

Despite its recalcitrance, Mehmooda says, the Taliban won't trade bin Laden's future for its own.

"The Taliban wants to maintain power at any cost," she says. Afghan observers expect the Taliban to finally extradite bin Laden in exchange for U.S. protection against reprisals from the terrorist's followers. "They'll be looking for a U.S. guarantee that the Taliban will remain in power," Mehmooda predicts.

But in the meantime, it is not the terrorists who will suffer the fury of U.S. retribution, fears Mehmooda. It is the people in the shops, the farmers in their fields, the children in their homes.

"If the U.S. retaliates through military action, it will take its victims from our ordinary men, women and children. It will once again break our hearts to see our people pay for the crimes of the terrorists."

It is an unjust price to pay for an atrocity they have not committed, she says. And yet the people of Afghanistan are filled with remorse about the events of the past week.

"Our people feel disgraced," she says. "Our hearts are with the American people, and we share your grief."

A teacher and a journalist, Dianne Lynch is the author of Virtual Ethics. Wired Women appears on alternate Wednesdays


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