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Afghans’ hopes pitted against enormous need

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KABUL, Afghanistan — On the banks of the freezing, filthy trickle that is the Kabul River, women with raw, red-knuckled hands kneel to wash clothes. People on street corners huddle around open fires for warmth. Wizened old men struggle to propel heavy wooden pushcarts; maimed beggars moan out appeals.

Daily life in Afghanistan — a country all but crushed by years of war, drought and poverty — has at times an almost medieval quality, the feel of an existence played out in some calamitous long-ago century.

As the world's main donor countries gather Monday and Tuesday in Tokyo to consider what Afghanistan needs to rebuild itself, the answer is: almost everything. Few places on earth are so lacking in basic necessities, let alone trappings of the modern statehood to which the country now aspires.

From the drafty, ill-lit corridors of urban hospitals to snowbound mountain villages where the desperately hungry have been boiling up grass porridge to feed to infants, Afghanistan is a tableau of privations great and small.

Tears welled in the eyes of Mohammed Khaled, a young male nurse in Kabul's Aliabad Hospital, as he described running out of gauze dressings while trying to treat a pain-racked burn victim. A widow in her 50s named Shah Jan pointed wordlessly to her daughter's feet — on a day cold enough to freeze the puddles outside her Kabul home, the 12-year-old girl was wearing a pair of cast-off, broken-heeled women's dress pumps, black with red spangles.

The World Bank, the U.N. Development Program and the Asian Development Bank estimated in advance of the Tokyo conference that rebuilding Afghanistan would require $15 billion over the next 10 years.

The conference, attended by 50 nations and international organizations, is expected to raise some $3 billion for the first 2 1/2 years of reconstruction. But Japan's top official on Afghan aid underlined that this must be only the start.

"We have to approach this conference with the recognition that our work is just beginning," Sadako Ogata said Saturday.

Top priorities are expected to be health care, education, rebuilding a shattered infrastructure, clearing land mines and reviving agriculture — both to help feed the nation's people and to prevent a reprise of Afghanistan's role as the world's premier producer of opium.

Longtime international observers struggle to find superlatives to sum up the degree of need in a country where a cruel confluence of hardships has driven the average life expectancy down to 44 years, and where one child in four is dead by the age of 5, swept off by disease and malnutrition.

"When I'm in Kabul, I think of Dresden after the firebombing — except that Dresden was in a developed country," said Stephanie Bunker, a United Nations spokeswoman. "It's almost impossible to describe the state of things to outsiders. It's just a Pandora's box of misery."

Yet against this backdrop of suffering are remarkable displays of resilience and resourcefulness. Impossibly dilapidated cars, ingeniously repaired with makeshift tools and parts, roar through city streets. Market stalls set up in shanties and shipping containers sell bicycle tires whose original rubber treads can barely be seen through an intricate tracery of patches.

Even Afghans in the most difficult straits tend to talk as much of their aspirations as their adversities.

"I want to get an education," said a ragged 14-year-old named Faizal, who sells vegetables from a pushcart in Kabul's main market. "I lost my father in the fighting when I was six, and I have no brothers, so there is no man but me in our family to work. But I want to learn. Maybe I will be able to now."

A month after Afghanistan's interim government took office — and nearly four months after the United States went to war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network — such heightened hopes are both a blessing and a curse.

Great expectations may buoy the country's people during a difficult period of transition, but the warnings are already being sounded: If the world fails to step in with assistance substantial enough to make a difference in Afghans' lives, the stage could be set for a relapse into the kind of chaotic internecine fighting that preceded the rise of the Taliban.

Reminders of the ferocious 1992-96 civil war are inescapable in Kabul, where warlords' point-blank rocket duels left whole districts resembling the ruins of some ancient civilization.

In the city's south and east lie row upon row of blasted buildings — the national theater, in whose wrecked shell the first defiant post-Taliban production has already been staged; the national museum, whose treasures were looted and destroyed; the national bus depot, filled with the rusting bus skeletons stripped of every useful part; the city's best high school and parts of Kabul University, among hundreds of other destroyed structures.

Many young Afghans have never known peace, or a time when their country actually functioned as a state. But working in Afghanistan's favor is the half-buried collective memory of better times — one that can serve in some ways as model and guide.

In 1978, a year before the Soviet invasion inaugurated 23 years of warfare, the country was able to feed itself — in contrast to now, when fully one-third of its 26 million people depend on food aid to survive. In Kabul in particular, there was a highly educated professional class. Many fled overseas, and a few are now trickling home from exile.

"Once upon a time, this was a developing country. People forget that, but it could be one again," said Bunker, the U.N. spokeswoman.

Afghans, on the whole, agree.

"We have had terrible times for as long as I can remember," said Freshta Kohistani, a 26-year-old high school teacher who will go back to work when the school year begins in March. "Now I think we have a chance to be a real country. If we work hard, and the world is with us, we can build ourselves again."