Published on Thursday, October 18, 2001 in the Times of London
Fleeing Refugees Turn Against US Over Gunships
by Catherine Philp in Chaman
THE bearded young man had barely made it over the border before he dropped his bag in the dust and stood in front of me. “This is a coward’s war you people are fighting,” he barked, wagging a grimy finger in my face.
“You tell your soldiers to come down on the ground to fight us and then they will see what a real war is,” he added.
Behind him, scores of other refugees struggled across the border, their expressions alternately dazed or angry, after fleeing three days of devastating attacks by US jets and helicopter gunships over the city of Kandahar.
“Before there were breaks in the bombing, but now it is all the time, it hardly stops,” sobbed Hamida Ahmad, 26, as she pushed her two young sons past the border guards. After a night crouching in the dark, they had set off with other family members for the border. “When we left our house in the morning, the raids were still going on. The children started screaming as soon as we stepped out of the house and saw the planes over us in the sky.”
Hameed Ullah, 27, said his fears had been allayed when he saw the attack aircraft clearly homing in on the main Taleban base in the cantonment area of the city. “They circled above the base and fired, over and over again, before flying off,” he said. But the sight of the low-flying aircraft firing machinegun and cannon had panicked many civilians into believing that the whole city was under fire, he said.
That fear only intensified when most of the remaining Taleban fighters, mainly Arabs from the 55 Brigade, moved into civilian buildings around the city to avoid strikes on their quarters. Mr Ullah gave in to his wife’s pleading to move the family to Pakistan. “The Americans have to be very careful if they want people to believe it is only the Taleban they are trying to destroy,” Mr Ullah said.
The warning may be apt. For every crowd of ragged children and burka-draped women streaming across the border came a huddle of scowling young men, furious at being hounded out of their city and vowing revenge when the time comes for battle.
Several refugees claimed that there had been severe civilian casualties in the bombing; but their accounts of women and children being pulled out of rubble, and dozens killed in a single bomb blast, were uncorroborated and impossible to verify.
Even the usually amiable Pakistani border guards looked stern. “Look at all these poor people made homeless by these bombings,” said Commander Aftab, flashing me an accusatory glare. “This is a terrible thing.”
Officially the border is closed to all those without Pakistani identity cards, but few of the hundreds crossing yesterday were able to produce them.
How then did they get across? I asked one father carrying his screaming child towards a precariously loaded lorry.
He rubbed his thumb against his fingers with a look of resignation.
Commander Aftab looked at us both with barely concealed fury. “We are helping them,” he exploded. “What are your people doing?”
Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.