Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Russian clinic in Kabul opens to jeers not cheers
By Michael Steen

KABUL, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Russia opened a high-tech field hospital in downtown Kabul on Sunday, but a crowd of Afghans standing behind Russian guards armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles remained deeply sceptical about their intentions.

Since they arrived under cover of darkness last Monday, the 100 uniformed officials from Russia's Emergencies Ministry, which is not part of the military, have provoked concern and intrigue among hundreds of Afghans flocking to watch them.

The Soviet Union's 1979-1989 occupation of Afghanistan has left more than bad memories and old gravestones -- if you are one of the 10 Afghans a day who is killed or maimed by a landmine, the chances are it was laid by a Russian sapper.

"I think we'll be here for a long time," said Irena Nazarova, the head doctor. "This hospital will help the local population since there are not enough medical experts here."

She said her staff of crack medics would treat whomever needed their help and, with Muslim sensitivities in mind, the hospital would have separate entrances for men and women.

But among the crowd outside the walled compound, Rayur Kostani, a 38-year-old doctor from the nearby Chaharsad Bestar (Four Hundred Beds) hospital was not happy.

"The Russians came here some years ago and killed a lot of people, I don't like them," he said. "I am a doctor and I can say we don't need these people."

Another man, who did not give his name, said: "They have come before, but they were defeated. If they do anything bad we will fight them again."

Although some of the same Mujahideen fighters who helped rout the Red Army later became the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and relied on Russia for arms supplies, many civilian Afghans have never learnt to love Moscow.


The Russian clinic, which adjoins a temporary embassy and will also distribute humanitarian aid, is not only near Kostani's hospital. It is barely 100 metres (yards) from a brand new brick hospital built with Italian backing.

Russian medics showed a group of officials from the Northern Alliance, which marched into Kabul on November 13 after the Taliban fled, the well-equipped hospital which is laid out in a series of inflatable tents.

But asked if it was really so desperately needed in a city with working hospitals, the Russians declined to comment.

"That's not a question for me," said Nazarova, who has treated the wounded from Chechen wars and Russian and Turkish earthquakes. "My task is just to organise medical care."

Deputy Emergencies Minister Valery Vostrotin, a veteran of the Soviet Afghan war who was decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, said his team was merely trying to give Afghanistan "concrete and real help."

"The people of Afghanistan needed help, so why should we wait?" said Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan, Alexander Oblov, who added that Moscow's embassy would be officially opened as soon as possible.

Russia's high-profile armed presence in Kabul contrasts sharply with U.S. and British special forces who have mostly hidden inside Bagram airport to the north, or, when in Kabul, at least tried to pass themselves off as macho journalists.

It is also reminiscent of Russia's swift move into the capital of Kosovo, Pristina, in 1999, after a U.S. bombing campaign prompted Serbian forces to leave the city -- a move which initially alarmed Washington.

But behind the line of armed guards, who say they are there solely for the clinic's security, some Afghans were not taking matters too seriously.

"It's interesting to watch them," said Samargo, a 45-year- old Red Cross worker. "I've been watching them for three hours already."

Back to the Top    Next Article