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Feature: Life goes on in Uzbek border town
By HARBAKSH SINGH NANDA

TERMEZ, Uzbekistan, Oct. 26 (UPI) Life on the Uzbek side of the Amu Darya River bustles, in vivid contrast to the portrait of hardship emerging across the river in neighboring Afghanistan.

From across the bridge, the village Hariton disappears as darkness falls. There's no electricity on the Afghan side. In Termez, Uzbekistan, the night clubs and bars hustle long into the night, their customers drinking the alcohol that could earn them a public lashing across the river.

"Termez no problem. All peaceful," taxi driver Hikmatullah said with his broken English.

For many residents among the 100,000 or so that populate the town, life is completely normal just a few kilometers away from the bombs and artillery of Afghanistan. Mazar-e-Sharif, the Taliban-held town that Northern Alliance forces have been struggling to regain in a series of fierce clashes, is less than 75 kilometers (50 miles) away.

But in Termez, "The only war we see is on CNN," university student Dima Ali said. "Our border is secure and electrically fenced all over. No need to worry."

One might have described Termez as "sleepy" until three weeks ago. That was when the news spread that 1,000 elite U.S. troops had rolled into town, and a horde of journalists, photographers and TV crews rode in hard on their heels.

But "We haven't seen any American troops here," Ali said.

The troops have landed at Khanabad air base 125 miles away and no journalists have been allowed to go there.

In the meantime, journalists have meant fortune for the entrepreneurs of Termez. The only decent hotel jacked up its rate from $5 to $30 per night, and the taxi fares have followed suit.

English speaking students of the university have become impromptu interpreters for foreign journalists, charging $20 to $ 30 a day a one-month salary for many Uzbek workers.

"Yes, it has been a boom time," interpreter Azim said. "This is a good practice for my English."

He said the money would come handy for higher education.

"This war has been beneficial for us economically. There would be more money for this town if the war continues," another English-speaking student said on condition of anonymity.

Termez was a closed city when the Soviet Union's army occupied Afghanistan. Classified as a military city, there was not much access to the people from elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

The bridge to Afghanistan was closed on May 24, 1997, shutting down trade relations with its neighbor. The 142-kilometer (89-mile) border was electrically fenced to stop the infiltration by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan rebels who are training with the Taliban.

Cargo cranes have set, unused for several years, on the Amu Darya port, now open for the humanitarian aid to flow into Afghanistan. The city is situated on the Great Silk Road that connected China to the West.

Many residents of Termez want the border opened for trade, but they are also skeptical of the terrorism across the border. The Uzbek government says the Islamic Movement Rebels are siding with Osama bin Laden and Taliban.

"We want the border to reopen if everything in Afghanistan is peaceful," businessman Mohammad Kadirov said. He remembers the high-quality trade goods he used to bring from Mazar-e-Sharif to sell in the Termez market.

Mazar-e-Sharif was the main trade transit point during peaceful days.

"I saw the Russian tanks retreating from this road in 1989. I want now to see passenger buses going on this road between the two nations," said a man, known by the single name Tersum, who lives in Ohunbobov, the last village on the Uzbekistan border with Afghanistan.

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