"If it's raining or snowing, then we can sleep late, maybe til 8 o'clock," said Laurence Laumonier. "But if it's sunny, then we must get up early--about 6--because we know the planes, the jets will be coming and the bombing will start." On those sunny days, Laumonier opens the hospital early to treat the injured.
"The word is 'hospital,' but it's just a house," said Laumonier in French-accented English. In a summery strapless pantsuit, she looked more like a tourist than someone who recently trekked 10 days over the snow-blanketed mountains of the Hindu Kush near the Khyber Pass to reach her patients in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley.
For the past five months, Laumonier and her friend Capucine de Bretagne have ministered to the medical needs of the people in this fertile farming center only 40 miles north of the Soviet-occupied Afghan capital of Kabul, where the Russians are fighting a Vietnam-style war with Muslim Afghan guerrillas.
The French women, both 29, are doctors with Aide Medicale Internationale, one of three French-based humanitarian organizations that has sent about 60 French medical personnel into guerrilla-held territory since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 2 1/2 years ago. The two doctors, who said no other western nation has sent medical personnel, visited Washington this week to tell their story and plead for humanitarian aid for the Afghans.
"The government has not allowed any humanitarian organization, even the Red Cross, to operate in Afghanistan, and most Afghan doctors have left the country," said Laumonier. "There are 100,000 inhabitants living in the Panjshir Valley and no doctors."
Measles and tuberculosis are widespread, contributing to a 40 percent infant mortality rate, she added. Not to mention the war injuries which sometimes require surgery performed under the glow of a petroleum-fueled pressure lamp. The clinic has no electricity. Though the doctors said they saw no evidence of the use of chemical weapons or gas, they said they did treat one guerrilla for napalm burns. He later died.
Occasionally the weather brings them a patient. De Bretagne told how they once had to amputate eight fingers of an Afghan who had stayed out too long in the freezing mountain passes and gotten frostbite.
Medical supplies are brought in by French personnel the same way the two women went in--by mule train over the mountain passes that separate Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan, a country that has given refuge to 2.8 million Afghan refugees since the Soviet invasion. The trek takes about 10 days.
Once in the valley they are put up in a small mud house and given food ("a lot of yogurt") by the villagers. Their days are spent in the "hospital," which is "just a house where we put medicine and beds," said Laumonier.
Despite the war, Afghans can travel between the Panjshir and Kabul. "We had some people come from Kabul just to see the French doctors. It's a big reputation we have now," Laumonier said with a laugh.
U.S. government sources here say the clinics set up by the French, despite large red crosses painted on their roofs, are bombed regularly by the Soviets, especially when the French medical teams, which go in for three or four months at a time, are overlapping as a new team comes in.
"Once I was inside the hospital and bombs fell all around it. We were lucky," said de Bretagne, who, because her English is not as strong as Laumonier's, let her companion do most of the talking.
On May 17 the Soviets launched one of the largest offensives of the war, reportedly putting 12,000 Russian and Afghan troops into the Panjshir in an attempt to dislodge the Afghan mujaheddin, a word that means freedom fighters, from the 70-mile-long valley. The assault began with air raids by Soviets MIGs, the doctors said.
"Every day we changed places," said de Bretagne. "At first we were in houses in a small village with our patients, but after our little valley was bombed, from 6 in the morning to 6 at night our patients were hiding in caves and often we were with them. But some days I worked; I went to see other patients in the valley. But we were very careful, we waited until the sky became free of planes ."
During the offensive, which went on for more than a month, the mujaheddin retreated into their mountain redoubts and kept the Soviet and Afghan army troops from coming up into the mountains where the civilians were, the women said. The guerrillas made night forays into the Soviet positions.
The women said the mujaheddin leader in their area, a 28-year-old former engineering student named Ahmad Shah Massoud, regularly gets information about Soviet plans from sympathizers in the Afghan army and had told the doctors to expect the offensive a month before it began. Three days before the attack, most of the civilian population had moved to the higher mountain villages and "the valley was empty," they said.
On June 2 the doctors left the Panjshir valley for Pakistan "because we received a letter from Massoud saying to 'go back because all the Russians are looking for you,' " Laumonier said. When Soviets entered villages, they asked about the two French women, the doctors said. And at one point, Russian helicopters dropped leaflets announcing that Massoud had fled the fighting in the Panjshir with the "two French prostitutes."
Though the Soviets don't like it, they have been able to do little about the presence of the French doctors in Panjshir. The women said they never met a Soviet soldier. So far, none of the French medical personnel who has gone into Afghanistan since the war began have been killed, injured or captured.
Laumonier has been in and out of Afghanistan five times since the 1979 invasion, and de Bretagne has been in a total of eight months. Their tour is usually for three months. They say it is not as dangerous as most people believe. "Really, the mujaheddin take care of you very much," said Laumonier, who lamented that "so few" journalists have gone into Afghanistan to report the war that information is often delayed or distorted.
"Everyone there listens to the BBC and the Voice of America to know what is going on," Laumonier said. "During this big offensive, for 13 days we didn't hear anything over the radio about it. But every day we saw the bombardment. It means nobody in the world knew about the bombing. Psychologically it's terrible."
But the morale of the Afghans "is excellent. During this last offensive, I never heard one man or woman or child say Panjshir is finished," said Laumonier, who has learned to speak Dari. "But they did say many times that they had never seen so many planes or helicopters."
The women fear that because of damage to crops, irrigation ditches and homes in the recent offensive, there may be an increase in refugees leaving the country. "The people need some international help," Laumonier said. "There is a lot of help for the refugees in Pakistan, but people do not understand that if they send help into Afghanistan, there will not be so many refugees in Pakistan."
The Pakistan government, which has condemned the Soviet invasion but been leery of antagonizing them more than necessary, has maintained a discreet silence about the fact that the French doctors enter Afghanistan from their territory. But last week Laumonier and de Bretagne met the new Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations, Shah Nawaz, who thanked them for their work. "Everyone was surprised," Laumonier said. "It was the first time they officially recognized us."
The women met briefly with some members of Congress last Saturday, though they declined to name them. After a trip to Oregon and Boston, they will head back for the Khyber Pass and the Panjshir Valley. When asked why they want to return, there is a pause and then Laumonier replies: "There is no medical support in Afghanistan. So humanitarianism is one motivation. And there is the motivation of adventure. Also, I like to help people who are fighting for their freedom."