Kandahar, Afghanistan's second city, is located in the southern part of the country. In the labyrinthine alleyways of the city's bazaar, traders huddle in shacks barely wider than a cupboard. The faces of the men in turbans, caps and traditional round-topped pakul hats are as impenetrable as wax masks. Out of the corners of their eyes, they keep a lookout for people who don't belong in the Taliban's former and current stronghold. A sticker on a battered Jeep proclaims "Life is short -- pray hard." Foreigners no longer dare to show their faces on these streets.
Outsiders who want to get anything done in Kandahar need to be very patient and have powerful supporters. Or they have to have unbridled optimism. On Aug. 31, US General David Petraeus, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, said that military progress was now clearly also being made in southern Afghanistan. The day before, an improvised explosive device made of fertilizer and nitric acid had killed five American soldiers in Kandahar as they drove past.
Things don't look good for the Western peacekeepers and their few remaining friends in Kandahar. Any Afghans suspected of being on the Americans' payroll risk losing their life. At the end of August, two provincial councilors, colleagues of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president, were killed in bombing attacks. On June 9, a suicide bomber killed himself and 40 other people at the wedding of a member of a US-trained village militia in the Arghandab valley. At police headquarters, they say up to 30 officers a week are being killed -- shot, stabbed or poisoned -- by the Taliban.
But if the security forces are falling victim to these Muslim radicals in droves, who will protect the last foreigners left in Kandahar?
'We Don't Do Fingers'
Beyond the ruins of what were once the offices of two American companies stands the cypress-filled courtyard of Mirwais hospital. This is one of the rare places in Kandahar where Afghan and Western civilians can still freely meet.
It's 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade as Markus Geisser starts his rounds. The Swiss doctor heads the mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kandahar province. A total of 35 foreigners represent the organization in this war-torn region. Their main focus is Mirwais hospital and its trauma surgery center.
The floors are tiled in green-and-white, the rooms illuminated by neon strip-lights. There are 180 beds in all -- eight in each room. It smells of bean soup, stale sweat and unbearable suffering.
"What do you want to see?" a male nurse asks. "Mine or bombing victims? Gunshot wounds?"
The people holding a silent vigil at the bedsides of their grandsons, sons or brothers are all men. Ezatullah, a whimpering 12-year-old, was brought to the hospital from the village of Zangawat by his grandfather. The man looks in mute grief at the boy, whose lower leg and the ends of five fingers were ripped off by a landmine. He watches as the doctors do their work. Ezatullah may get an artificial leg, but it's not clear what will happen to his finger-tips. "We don't do fingers, only whole hands," the male nurse says matter-of-factly.
"The Americans fire from the sky in helicopters, and on the ground we step on Taliban mines," Ezatullah's grandfather complains. Pitched battles are being waged around Kandahar. Every second patient in the emergency room is a war victim.
No Taking Sides
In its role as "the grand old lady of humanitarian assistance", the Red Cross tries hard to remain neutral in the conflict, says Geisser, a friendly 40-year-old with blond hair. "We have to be careful here because we're being watched by all sides."
Providing help without taking sides: That's the motto of the ICRC. But doesn't an organization that invests money and resources repairing the ravages of war risk becoming an accessory to this very conflict? Aren't aid organizations automatically partisan if, like the Red Cross staff working near Kandahar, they also set up offices in Taliban-held areas?
"That's a legitimate question," says Geisser, who previously spent time between the fronts in Darfur, Burma, Congo and Iraq, and yet insists he is not a mobile "warhorse" in doctors' scrubs. "I don't think we're prolonging the fighting here in Kandahar," he says.
In early August, 10 members of a team of doctors belonging to a development organization called the International Assistance Mission were murdered in northeastern Afghanistan. It's still unclear whether they were killed by the Taliban or simple criminals. The fact is that now even fewer foreigners venture out of the capital Kabul and into rural areas than before. Geisser says that no more than a few dozen foreigners have remained in Kandahar. "Some of them are basically hibernating," he says. "They've gone completely into hiding."
Geisser and his Red Cross colleagues have no intention of leaving in the foreseeable future, he says. Even though they know they are, as he puts it, "exotic birds in a cage."