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Russia Begins Kabul Humanitarian Mission - 2001-12-06

Several dozen Russian military personnel are in the Afghan capital Kabul, on a mission to rebuild its embassy and to provide medical help to the poor. It is the first time Russian troops have been on Afghan soil since the former Soviet Union withdrew the last of its forces from Afghanistan 12 years ago. Many Afghans have mixed feelings about their presence. Inside a diplomatic compound is not where one expects to find grazing goats and sheep, but the Russian embassy in Kabul is no ordinary place. For the past five years this huge sprawling compound, crisscrossed with highrise apartment buildings has been home to more than 3,000 refugees, mostly from the Shamoli plains north of Kabul.

Several days ago, word began circulating inside the compound that the Russians had returned and wanted their embassy back. A panic stricken 32- year-old mother of four named Nina, says if she is told to leave, she and her family will not survive.

"Four years ago the Taleban killed my husband and burned down our house in the Shamoli plains," she says. "The Taleban then forced me to come here with my children. She says she has no home to go back to."

Nina lives in one of three apartment complexes set aside for widows. Like all of the other buildings in the compound, her home is nothing more than a single bare room inside a crumbling concrete structure. She shares the room with four other widows and their children. There is no electricity, no running water and no heat.

Last year Nina's two-year-old son fell off the fourth floor balcony and died. She says many children die here every year in such accidents. The women have come to simply accept it as God's will.

But despite the danger and the overwhelming hardship, Nina thinks having a roof over her head is still better than freezing to death in the streets of Kabul. She says she hopes the Russians will show compassion and let her stay.

Thirteen-year-old Faiyez says he too has nowhere to go. Three years ago he became the head of the family after the Taleban killed both his father and older brother. He supports his mother by begging and shining shoes. But he says he can not afford a house where they can all live together.

One of the village elders living in the complex, Amid Dullah, says the people are deeply worried about what will happen to them. He notes that many have not forgotten the decade long occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He thinks the Russians should take some responsibility for the plight of poor Afghans.

"When the Russians invaded Afghanistan they brought war and inequality to this country," Mr. Dullah says. "The last thing the Russians should do is cause more suffering here."

But across town there are Afghans who are welcoming the Russians with open arms. Hundreds of people are standing in line in front of a Russian field hospital set up by the Russian military. Deployed to Kabul by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, trained medics are examining people and distributing medicines to up to 200 people a day.

In a city with virtually no health care, many desperately ill people like 28-year-old Soraiya view the medics as their last hope for a cure. "I have to do something, otherwise I lose everything. I heard about these Russian people who have a clinic or something so I just came here," she says.

The Russians are declining to make public comments to reporters, but the presence of heavily armed guards around the field hospital reflects their nervousness about being back among Afghans who fought the mighty Soviet Army for a decade and won.

A Russian guard leans over and says privately, "I hope the Afghan people know we come this time with our hands extended in friendship. If they don't believe that, we are all in deep trouble."