- The Washington Times - Monday, November 19, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan For surgeon Gino Strada, the past two weeks have been a long, strange and harrowing journey across some of the world's highest mountains and bomb-blasted front lines to reach a city convulsed in violence.
When the United States began bombing Afghanistan, the executive director of the Italian medical charity Emergency started negotiating with authorities of the then-ruling Taliban regime to reopen the hospital in Kabul he abandoned last May.
But first Dr. Strada had to get there.
The Red Cross and the United Nations refused to fly Dr. Strada to Afghanistan, even though their planes regularly delivered humanitarian aid into the country and returned with evacuees. It would "look contradictory," aid workers told Dr. Strada, to fly him into Kabul after evacuating their own workers.
"It's your decision to evacuate," he replied. "Ours is to go in."
Neither agency would budge, but Dr. Strada was undeterred. He and an English nurse began a grueling four-day journey by jeep and on horseback from Pakistan, over the 15,000-foot-high passes of Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains. Then they had to negotiate passage across the front lines north of Kabul with both the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance.
Once through the lines, they faced a harrowing drive to Kabul as American bombers pounded nearby Taliban targets. They arrived in Kabul Nov. 8, just days before the city's abrupt capture by resurgent opposition forces.
The day after they reached the city, the Northern Alliance, backed by devastatingly accurate U.S. bombing, captured the Taliban's northern stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif.
The fall of the city and its approaches began a rush of Taliban surrenders and defections and a collapse of morale among Taliban forces.
Dr. Strada moved without fear among native Afghans behind Taliban lines, but the thousands of foreign fighters mostly Arabs, Pakistanis, some Chechens and other Islamic militants gave him pause.
"These Arabs don't really see you as an aid worker," he said, "only as an infidel."
Many of the Arab fighters were based in roomy houses near the Emergency hospital.
They were generally heavily armed and surly. Often they spat and cursed at Dr. Strada.
For that very reason, one of Dr. Strada's most emphatic demands had been for the regime to provide armed security personnel. His first clue that the Taliban regime was coming undone came when officials, still claiming control of 90 percent of Afghanistan, "couldn't find two armed guards that day, or the day after."
The day before Kabul fell, he said, "it was clear a takeover might be imminent."
The streets were nearly deserted, shops were closed, and city residents who had the option were fleeing to homes in outlying villages.
The following night, chaos erupted in the city. There was "shouting, confusion, panic," said the doctor. "People were banging on the gates."
The Taliban and its foreign allies were primarily seeking vehicles to steal so they could flee the city, he added, but the guards at the hospital refused to admit them. Taliban tanks and other military vehicles roared through the streets throughout the evening, on the way out of town.
As opposition troops moved into the city the following morning, there was "heavy shooting" nearby, as arriving troops along with angry locals flushed out and shot or seized foreign fighters who had slept through their comrades' hasty departure.
Among the patients now at the hospital are two wounded Taliban prisoners brought in by Northern Alliance forces. Both claim to be Afghans living in Pakistan who were "just visiting" Kabul. It's all the same to Dr. Strada.
During the fighting, "we treated two people, an Algerian and a Moroccan. They had stopped spitting at us," he added.


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