by Tony Cross
Article published on the 2009-08-09 Latest update 2009-08-11 15:47 TU
Torkham frontier post, 16 November 2001
It's six nights after the Taliban quit Kabul. Pakistani border officials have taken a break in the middle of stamping the passports of hundreds of journalists who arrived in convoy this afternoon.
It's ramadan and they must pray ... and break their fast.
Darkness has descended and we buy our first, but by no means last, meal of kebab from a scruffy restaurant in the village that surrounds the post.
Finally the formalities are over and the convoy lines up in front of the huge black metal gate that closes the frontier.
Just as we’re about to leave, camera flashes go off a few hundred yards away. The Taliban have released the last journalist they’ve been holding, a Japanese who’s received little publicity in the West.
Thanks to our driver, Assad, who is always keen to be ahead of all other cars, we’ve actually paid a guard to let us be first out of Pakistan. Now we find ourselves at the head of a convoy about to enter a country at war. And I’m in the front passenger seat.
A week ago, Radio France Internationale's Johanne Sutton was killed, along with two other journalists, when they were caught in fighting in northern Afghanistan.
The gate slides open. In front of us is a mojahed on the back of a pick-up truck, aiming a rocket-launcher straight at our windscreen. Around him are 20 or 30 others, armed with Kalishnikovs.
"Boom!" he says and laughs.
Fortunately, they’re on our side. They’re our guard, supplied by Jalalabad’s new security chief, Haji Zaman, whose representative in Peshawar, Engineer Mohammad Alim, has organised the convoy.
As we drive gingerly across the line, more mojaheddin appear, mostly young and apparently stoned.
There’s a long wait, as a TV crew transfer equipment from a lorry to buses and cars. Photographers snap the mojaheddin, journalists interview them. I file a report. Then we’re off along a well-maintained road ("The Taliban built this," says our interpreter Kamal) past newly-built petrol stations whose pumps glisten in the headlights. They’re the last modern ones we see in Afghanistan and must have been built to service the powerful smuggling operations whose bosses backed the Taliban in the hope that the ultra-fundamentalist militias would impose some degree of unity on the country.
Jalalabad under new rulers
After the fall of Kabul and a couple of days of tension, four rival Pashtun warlords have just reached agreement to share power in Jalalabad.
The new governor is Haji Abdul Qadeer, the man who in 1996 handed the city over to the Taliban, allegedly in exchange for a bribe of as much as ten million dollars cash plus a guarantee that his assets and bank accounts in Pakistan wouldn’t be frozen. The deal was reportedly brokered by Islamabad and Saudi intellligence boss, Prince Turki al Faisal, now retired from his post after failing to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden.
In the warm Jalalabad night, some journalists are welcomed into the Governor’s palace. Others, including ourselves, go on to the only known hotel, which is already overbooked, thanks to a convoy which arrived two days ago, and which is raising the prices of its grubby rooms by the minute. We get a room, thanks to a Danish TV journalist, who’s moved to a better one but has been unsuccessful in her attempts to hand back the keys to the one she has vacated.
Jalalabad is a city stuffed with guns. Truckloads of mojaheddin circle the space in front of the Governor’s palace, piles of rocket-launchers and ammunition resting on the tailgates. Others walk around in the morning sunshine, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.
Inside the palace guards in Soviet-style uniforms and US-style trainers slouch at the doorways, making no effort to stop anyone enter.
A delegation of tribal elders have arrived to congratulate the new incumbent. Mohammed Dulah, from Chapathar village tells us that he used to be a commandant in Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s Hizb-e-Islami. He’s calm but venomous when he pronounces the name of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who’s still officially recognised as President by most of the world and who has been making portentous declarations about the future of the country since the Northern Alliance took control of Kabul.
What right has Rabbani to promise elections in two years time? Dulah wants to know.
If Rabbani remains in power, the Northern Alliance will make the same mistakes as it did in the early 1990s, he says, referring to the period when mojaheddin factions waged a bloody internecine struggle for power, at vast cost to the population in terms of lives and living conditions. Dulah wants a leader who is "a true Muslim who will work for Afghanistan" and who’s chosen by the whole country.
And, now that the rest of the world is again discussing Afghanistan and US President George W Bush has declared war on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, what should foreigners do for the country?
"We want them to reconstruct our country and then go back to their own country."
Engineer Mohammed Alim also wants the Americans to help reconstruct Afghanistan, although, when asked if that means paying for the process, he says, "Not necessarily."
Alim, who organised the convoy from Peshawar, is a handsome man, with the classic Afghan aquiline features and thick, black beard, laughlines around his eyes and a smart Western jacket worn over his shalwar kameez.
He speaks fluent English, which helps in the new role that he has assumed of spokesperson for Jalalabad’s new Security Chief, Haji Zaman.
Earlier a rickshaw driver had told us that Afghans are sick of seeing armed men on the street.
"The Taliban were bad but at least there was security under their rule," is a refrain that we’ll hear again and again from Afghans who remember the chaotic early 90s and fear that they will return.
Engineer Mohammed Alim smiles charmingly and reassures us that security is already improving.
"It will be controlled in one or two days. Yesterday was good, today is better and by tomorrow will be best."
Robbed at gunpoint
The road from Jalalabad to Kabul must be one of the worst in the world. We had arranged to travel this gritty, bumpy wreck of a route with another car containing a Polish TV crew but, on one of the rare stretches of tarmac, they left us behind.
Now we are bumping slowly along a surface ravaged by two decades of war, listening to our driver, Assad, tell us how he fought the Russians from the mountains alongside the road.
I’m in the front passenger seat. Jean Piel, who works for RFI’s French service and other French-language news-media too numerous to mention, Médard Chablaoui, our sound engineer, and Kamal Nassar, our interpreter, are in the back.
There’s plenty of evidence of the war: bomb craters, twisted wrecks of military vehicles and checkpoints.
Five young men run out of one of these, waving their arms for us to stop. We do so. They seem very agitated and four of them are carrying Kalashnikovs.
As I open the car door, I hear the sound of a gun's safety catch being taken off.
They wrench open the other car doors and pull us out of the car. Then, encouraging us with shouts and blows from their gun-butts, they drive us across the road. All except Assad, that is. They keep him by the car with a gun to his head.
We are taken into a shallow ravine, across rocks, over a stream.
When faced with probable death, you think at 1,000 knots a minute. Is this the real and definitive end ? You can’t kill me, I’ve got a mother who loves me! How can I have put my family in such a situation? Or are they taking us hostage ? I don’t think I could survive many Afghan winter nights in the mountains.
You realise that they’ve known nothing but war all their lives and that to them your death would be as banal as the change in the seasons. But you remain strangely calm. You don’t panic.
I can’t move as fast as the others, thanks to the after-effects of being run over on a Paris street a year ago. At one point I stumble on a rock. At first I think that I’m going to suffer the fate of the weak and be shot for my physical shortcomings. But the boy beside me, he can’t be more than 18-years-old, stretches out his hand and helps me up. In doing so, he finds my wallet and takes it. I reach out to him, thinking that I could say "Take the money but leave my papers," but realise that I don’t have the language skills and that he has a Kalashnikov.
They take us well away from the road, behind a huge rock which completely conceals us from view. At that point we’re all sure that we’re going to die. Jean Piel tells me later that he will always remember my face, pale and drawn.
Then they frisk us. A boy frisks me and, when he finds nothing, I think that I’m going to be killed because the little bastard who’s already taken my money wants to keep it all for himself. I point at him. The frisking ends. We find ourselves up against the rocks that lead up into the mountain, the robbers between us and the way back to the road. The one with no gun is doing a shuttle between us and the road.
Through Kamal they tell us to stay here, that if we move they’ll kill us, and turn to run away. As they go, the one who appears to be the leader, turns, rubs his thumb and forefinger together and says : "Paise, Paise." Money, money. Is this to sneer at us or to reassure us that we won’t be killed if we do what we’re told.
There’s silence once they’re gone. Then we start to discuss how long we’ll stay there, if we should resist if they come back to kill us.
After ten minutes, we hear Assad shouting from the road.
We run towards the car, me the slowest again. This time I don’t regret my slight disability, since I still half-fear that we will shot as we approach the road.
Once in the car, we start telling each other what we’ve lost, money, cameras, Méd’s mobile phone. Jean has suffered worst, they’ve taken his bag and it had his contacts-book in it.
Then we realise that we’re still alive.
Assad didn’t tell them that we were journalists; he told them that we were with an NGO. With amazing courage, if not foolhardiness, he said that he didn’t have the keys to the boot and so saved our clothes, some of our money and all our working material. Although he had the worst experience, he seems the least shaken up.
Assad flags down a carload of Afghans and asks them to stay with us on the road, which they do. We stop at the next checkpoint and the armed men there tell us that they’ll go after the robbers if we pay them. We decline the offer.
Further along the road, on a large bend, a pick-up truck full of men is parked, with one man standing beside it, like a vulture perched on a branch.
Once we’re past them, our Afghan friends pull up beside us and tells us that those were robbers, too.
We pull into a village and are mobbed by kids, some of whom throw stones at the car.
The two-and-a-half-hour drive into Kabul passes in a state of shock mixed with paranoia. Méd thinks the Afghans who are with us want to rob us. I thought that we would be killed at the checkpoint. Every figure at the roadside seems menacing.
Kamal seems particularly shaken by the experience. Later he tells us that this is the second armed robbery he’s been through. The last time the robbers opened fire, killing his friend and putting him in hospital with two bullets in the leg. Kamal is 22, the same age as the fighting.
Night falls as we climb up into the mountains that mark the border of Kabul province. The descending sun picks out the pock-marked surface of the rocks, throws long shadows from high peaks, fails to reach all the way into deep valleys. It’s a landscape created by an angry god; a suitable backdrop for trauma.
Bad news in Kabul
The next day at the huge but shabby Intercontinental Hotel, I overhear people saying that four journalists have been killed.
I ask one of them, who’s with the BBC, about it. He says that the killing took place today on the Jalalabad-Kabul road. I tell the others. They’ve heard the same from French journalists.
It sounds strangely like a distorted account of our own experience. I stick my mike into a crowd and record a man, speaking English with a slight but unplaceable accent, saying, "… he came towards us saying, ‘Go back to Jalalabad, the Taliban are shooting journalists’ … we decided to go further, towards Kabul. On the way to Kabul, three youngsters, around 20-25-years-old, wearing camouflage jackets, carrying Kalashnikovs, they stopped us, they pointed guns to our heads, they taked all our stuff, our cameras, our passports, they dragged my driver outside, they pushed another journalist outside of the car, they checked all of our pockets and everything, then they were pushing us …. "
The four who were killed were Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, who worked for Reuters, Maria Grazia Cutuli, of Corriere della Sera, and Julio Fuentes, of El Mundo. They were beaten, stoned and shot at close range. It was at Sorubay, where we were robbed.
The gloomy reception area of the Pearl Continental is the place to pick up the latest rumours and, sometimes, a bit of the truth. The first journalists to arrive are staying here and the UN holds twice-daily press conferences, in an unsuitably laid-out room, in front of whose entrance stand three plastic buckets collecting the water that leaks from the ceiling. At the hotel door a man in uniform gives the revolving door an encouraging push when foreigners enter but is less welcoming when it comes to his compatriots.
Yesterday evening we were met in the crowded carpark by France Inter journalist Fabienne Sintes who had left Jalalabad ahead of us. Her interpreter, Abdul, had found a house for us to rent.
Our temporary residence belongs to a doctor who’s fled to Germany, leaving an old man in charge. Like the houses around it, it is modern, spacious, with marble floors, the home of a typical Kabul bourgeois, although a litle down-at-heel after being uninhabited for so long. On our first night many of the windows were missing, thanks to an American bomb which fell in the next street. They’re replaced the next day but that, and the primitive heating we buy, only does a little to make the cold Kabul night more tolerable.
The first filmshow for seven years
The day, on the other hand, is sunny and the sunlight shines on a big crowd outside the Cinema Bakhtar in the centre of town. The morning show is already underway. It’s the first for seven years, cinema having been one of the sinful practices repressed by the Taliban’s religious police under the guidance of the Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The 700 places were quickly sold and the crowd is waiting for the next showing. Some will have to wait for the one after that.
Foreign journalists are allowed to queue-jump, although the theatre is so full that we can only catch a glimpse of the film, a tale of mojaheddin heroism in the struggle against the Russians. The term Commandan features prominently in the soundtrack.
Sound engineer Hasem Qarim explains, at length and in a roundabout Asian style, that he kept the spools hidden from the Taliban, that he managed to keep the studio open with a skeleton staff, that there had been censors before the Taliban and that he hopes there will be a democratic and broad-based government now so that there can be free media for people to explain their lives. He also wants to show foreign films "which will teach people how to live".
Kamal seems puzzled when I ask him what the cinema’s name means.
"In the West cinemas’ names often mean something other just the name," I explain.
"It’s just the cinema’s name," he says … but later he adds, "It’s the old name for Afghanistan."
There’s dust everywhere, lodging in your throat and making everyone cough. Kabul city centre is full of Soviet-style official buildings, a scruffy street-market, a corner whose railings are covered with traditional carpets for sale (a blur of maroon as you pass in a car), oily shops selling hardware, electrical goods or car and bike parts, the compounds of UN agencies. In one square money-changers clutch huge wads of the nearly-valueless Afghani. A modest meal for three at the hotel costs over a million, waiters and shop-owners can count dozens of Afghani notes in seconds with a lightning counting technique which looks like a card-trick. All buildings of any importance have at least one armed guard. That includes the cinema.
As the fact that the Northern Alliance has won permanent control of the city sinks in to the Kabuli consciousness, pictures of Ahmed Shah Masood appear everywhere. A poster-sized one placed on an easel greets you as you enter Intercontinental’s dingy foyer, like a flash of colour pasted onto a black-and-white photo. Soon practically every vehicle in town has a picture of the commander praying tacked inside its windscreen or attached to its bonnet.
A fighter for women's rights
Stay on the street for any length of time and you’re approached by a beggar, often a child in rags with skin darkened by dirt, malnutrition and the effect of living outdoors, or a woman, who is probably one of the thousands of widows left in charge of a family after her husband died in the fighting, or after stepping on a landmine, or just from hunger and poverty.
Under the Taliban she was forbidden to work. She was also ordered to wear the burqa which she still wears. It covers her whole body down to the calves which are covered by trousers; her face is covered by a lattice, a cloth version of the screens over harem windows; all you can see of her is her hand, a claw protruding from a bundle of rags that says something in a language that you can’t understand. It’s relatively easy to refuse to give when you can’t see the beggar’s eyes.
Word gets round the press corps that there’s been a demonstration of women to reject the burqa. Very few journalists knew it was taking place. Now everyone wants to find the woman who organised the rally.
Soralya Parlika is being interviewed by a televison crew when we arrive at her flat. We don’t have an appointment but we are ushered into a room to wait to see her. There’s a woman in attendance, who I believe is a servant, and an old man with a complicated turban, bright blue eyes and a white beard. He’s Soralya’s father, Mohammed Harif. He’s deaf and his face has the uncomprehending look of those who don’t hear the hubbub of everyday life.
As we wait, some American journalists arrive and join the queue.
The flat is not very spacious, in a building which is relatively modern but scruffy on a housing estate which resembles cheap municipal housing in Britain.
But this is, or at least was, housing for the privileged. Kamal tells us that the flats were built for civil servants and officers "under the Communists". As we approached, we had to drive round a huge hole in the road, the result of a US-British bombing raid. There’s a playground on the other side of the road.
Parlika eventually appears. She’s 57 but, unusually for Afghanistan, looks younger than her age. She wears a headscarf, but leaves her rather pale-complexioned face uncovered. Despite her welcoming smile, she gives the disconcerting impression of gazing anxiously at a spot just over her interlocutor’s shoulder. She’s the second or third Afghan woman I’ve seen who isn’t wearing the burqa.
Kabul’s new rulers had refused to allow the demonstrators to march through the streets, saying that they couldn’t guarantee their safety, an assertion which excites a certain amount of scepticism on Parlika’s part. Between 100 and 200 women turned up nevertheless and held a rally, where they lifted up their burqas, most of them baring their faces but keeping their hair covered.
Parlika insists that the rally was not about the burqa and that there was no obligation on participants to remove it. The real aim was to demand that women be allowed to play a role in post-Taliban Afghanistan: that they should be allowed to work and to be educated, and that they should be represented at meetings about the country’s future and in any new government.
Her own history goes back to the late 1970s, when, after studying economics at Kabul University, she started working for the women’s section of the Democratic Party of Afghanistan. That led to a one-and-a-half-year jail term under Hafizullah Amin ("a brutal man"), the second president from the Khalq Communist faction who was killed when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.
She went on to head the Afghan Red Crescent but gave that up in 1992 when the mojaheddin rolled into town. Liberation from Russian rule didn’t mean women’s liberation. During the ’70s women in Kabul, at least, had access to education, employment and, if they wanted, Western dress. But in 1992, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who at the time more or less controlled the capital, publicly recommended that Kabuli women wear the burqa. Parlika established an underground women’s movement.
I ask if women are rejecting an Afghan tradition when they reject the burqa. She concedes that some Afghan women have always worn it. "But women who were educated, women who were going to school, university and who were working, they didn’t wear burqas. It was only women whose husbands were fanatics or chose to do so voluntarily."
So why do so many women continue to wear it now that they don’t have to?
She replies that many would feel unsafe without the burqa, that it’s warm and that, after years of being forbidden to work, they are poor and don’t want to expose their shabby clothes.
As yet, most of the women who are ready to work with Parlika are from what’s left of the educated middle class, the women who would fill the jobs that she’s demanding in education, healthcare and the administration of the country.
One of the Americans asks if she believes she could have accomplished as much as she has if she had been married.
Parlika talks generally about the condition of Afghan women.
The journalist insists and Parlika generalises again.
Someone suggests a different phrasing for the question and Parlika generalises again.
Try as they might, my colleagues can’t get a straight answer. Is the question too personal ? Is there something we’re not allowed to know? Or is it just easier to confront male prejudice in California than in Kabul ?
The Intercontinental’s antique television can now show the broadcasts of Kabul Television. The pre-Taliban presenters, a man and a woman, have been brought out of their forced retirement. The woman wears a headscarf but, fortunately from a televisual point of view, no burqa. The content is principally news – there’s plenty of that – and landscapes with accompanying music.
The Kabulis want more than the two hours a day that Kabul TV offers, however. Satellite dishes knocked together from old tin-cans appear outside shops, their repeated logos adding an Andy Warhol touch to street-life.
Other vices that Kabulis can once again indulge in after a five-year ban are getting a shave, listening to music, flying a kite and keeping pigeons.
And girls can now go to school again. The Taliban ban was never fully effective. Soralya Parlika was among those who ran secret schools where girls could pick up some education.
Gul Mohammad Ahamdi is the president of Sorbach, an NGO which runs 95 schools in Kabul. They teach over 7,000 children one of the local languages, maths and the Koran.
Kulhana Chadi school, in a battered area of Kabul mainly populated by the Hazara ethnic group, isn’t easy to spot. It’s a mud building like the houses around it. You open the door, which has been cannibalised from a goods-container, and you enter an empty store-room. Steps at the back of the store-room lead up to a landing with three dusty rooms off it.
They’re the classrooms, all packed with girls who stand up and sing out a greeting in unison as you enter. The nine teachers are all women - scarves not burqas, a bit of make-up, even – the teaching techniques seem to entail a lot of reciting by rote. The girls sit on the floor, some have cheap notebooks, others slates. They won’t be learning computer skills any day soon.
Outside a woman in a burqa draws water from a well. Inside a teacher explains that classes have been operating for about a year. The building is provided by a relative of one of the teachers. The immorality that it sheltered had to be concealed from the most zealous Taliban but some local commanders knew about the schools and tolerated them, if the area that they controlled was far enough away fom the religious police headquarters.
Ahamdi himself was often taken in for questioning. He says that he received many threats to his life under the Taliban. "I gave my son the name of the person he should contact if one day I didn’t come home."
And to what use will this education be put ? When asked, virtually all the girls say that they want to be doctors.
If war has scarred Kabul, leaving whole swathes of the city as rubble, it’s also marked many Kabulis for life. 97 per cent of Afghan children have lived through violence. Unicef officials say that the majority of under-16s have been traumatised by the war. 65 per cent have experienced the death of a close relative.
In every street you come across men and boys on crutches, or, the lucky ones, with artificial limbs. Their agility is remarkable, though never remarked on in a country where such an accomplishment is commonplace. Whole hospitals are devoted to trying to repair the damage done by left-over ordinance, especially the landmines that have been planted all over the country. Demining experts say that 735 square miles of land is dangerous.
And then the US and Britain launched a bombing campaign. In the formerly wealthy area of Wasir Aqbar Khan, UN demining expert, Ross Chamberlain, stands in front of a wreck of concrete and twisted metal and tells the assembled journalists, "We brought you here to show you a good example."
Chamberlain says that the building that stood here was the headquarters of a Taliban police commander. It suffered a direct hit, although nobody knows if the principal target was home. A building next door was partially destroyed. A number of pro-Taliban Arab volunteers are reported to have been inside. They all died.
In a wry Australian accent, Chamberlain tells us to look behind us. A line of trees partially conceals the Indira Ghandi hospital. "So they had to be spot-on, if they were wrong there was going to be a big problem."
But, he adds, there were more bad examples than good ones.
It seems that death discriminates against the poor. There’s no rubble at the second site we visit, just piles of dirt and dust, leaving a perfect view of the mountains that overlook the city. A bomb has obliterated the home of a family of ten, who were in it at the time. Only the mother survived and she stands on the site weeping and recounting her story to the microphones.
"The bomb was probably aimed at the military post on the hill," says Petere Lesueur, who’s technical adviser to Afghan Ordinance Consultants which is working with the UN. "A possible last-minute malfunction of the guidance unit and it’s probable that that ‘s what happened."
Ross Chamberlain estimates that 30 civilians have been killed in Kabul by US bombs, a non-combattant death-toll which he considers to be fairly low compared to other military campaigns. He’s found no evidence of the use of cluster-bombs in the city, although these packages of death and injury have been used elsewhere in the country.
"But there’ve been lots of 500-lb bombs," many of which have yet to explode.
The mines and bombs left behind by successive campaigns kill ten to 12 people every day.
Kabul’s electricity is cut off, causing the price of generators to soar as journalists comb the city for the power they need to file their stories and keep warm at night.
The current remains off for over 24 hours and it’s soon reported that this is no ordinary power-cut. It appears that a key power-station has been hit during heavy fighting between the Northern Alliance and tribal fighters at Sorubay after the Alliance sent 200 troops from Kabul to secure the road to Jalalabad. Roadblocks at the outskirts of Kabul prevent reporters visiting the scene.
Pashtun chiefs, who have have each taken control of their small parcel of territory, are defending their right to make the law on their own patch, especially against the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance.
The local chiefs’ power was curtailed under the Taliban to please the transport mafia, which objected to paying countless tolls as they travelled through the various fiefdoms along their way. Now, as we found out, robbers and other toll-collectors are reappearing. Ordinary Afghans fears of a return to lawlessness and faction fighting are being realised.
The following day, with power returned, I ask Northern Alliance spokesman Abdullah Abdullah whether the fighting has ended.
"What fighting?" he asks.
Check in your weapons at the door
One evening I go with Assad and Kamal to their favourite restaurant, which is a converted cinema. As we wash our hands by the entrance, a pick-up pulls up in the dark outside. About a dozen armed men in pakool hats and combat fatigues jump off it and lope past us into the restaurant.
Most of them leave their weapons at the door, as if they were checking in their hats and coats. The visitor can inspect a pretty array of arms, including a machine-gun with a bandolier of bullets ready to be fired. It looks strangely home-made, as if it had been cobbled together out of tin-cans like an African toy. Kamal says with distaste that this must be the party of "some commander".
The evening meal starts early because it’s ramadan and the Afghans are desperate to break their fast. In any case, you can’t linger over your meal because curfew begins at 9 pm.
A television crew which has paid a security official to accompany them at night says that there are roadblocks, manned by nervous youths, at very regular intervals. The guide knows the password, which changes every night, and whispers it to whoever’s in charge of the road-block. There not always sure that the jumpy militiamen are ready to wait for this formality to be enacted.
Kamal and I walk down our street in the sunny Kabul afternoon. He stoops and picks up a small lump of blackened metal. "Mortars," he says. Recognising ordnance is one of those handy skills that young Afghans have all managed to pick up.
We pass a group of men in khaki uniforms that look as if they’ve been left over from the Russian occupation. They’re police. We talk to the officer, a plump man squeezed into an undersized uniform decorated with colourful regalia.
He tells us to be careful at night; that there are still Taliban hidden in the city, or, to be precise, foreign volunteers whom the Taliban didn’t tell about the withdrawal. They woke up Tuesday morning to find themselves in a capital controlled by the enemy. The Northern Alliance reportedly shot some of them on the main street as soon as it arrived, but others have managed to find householders who hide them for money.
They try and sneak out of the city at night and there are sometimes shoot-outs with Northern Alliance fighters. Occasionally we hear a shot at night.
The next day, AFP reports that Kabul residents have spotted a group of American or British soldiers occupying a house in the city. They reportedly only go out at night, to hunt down Taliban or Al-Qaeda members.
When we unsuccessfully try and see Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunas Qanooni, we ask the advisers who receive us about this story.
There are no US or Bitish soldiers in Kabul, they say, but, when pressed, say that "American security experts from the Pentagon" are "collaborating with the Northern Alliance against terrorists here and throughout the country". It would be "difficult to say whether they might be in Kabul".
Are there any Taliban left in Kabul ? I ask.
So why is there a curfew ?
"For reasons of security. We haven’t collected in all the arms yet. Besides, we’ve had a curfew here for the last 22 years."
Why break the habit of a lifetime ?
A Taliban defector
Mollah Alhaj M Khaksar glances nervously over his shoulder at a Northern Alliance minder as he responds to our questions. He wears a black and yellow turban, a western suit-jacket over a traditional shalwar kameez, and a gold watch which can’t have come cheap. His bushy beard only partially conceals a chubby, boyish face. Bearded men in turbans sit around the walls, watching the interview, which is videoed for posterity, or maybe so that Kabul’s new masters have a record of what the mollah is saying.
At ten o’clock last night Abdullah Abdullah presented Khaksar, who was the Taliban’s deputy interior minister, to the press and announced that he has defected to the Northern Alliance.
Khaksar himself claims to have been in contact with the Alliance for two to three years, although he is vague as to whether those contacts were in a ministerial capacity or, as I think he would like us to believe, because he was an agent of Ahmed Shah Masood.
Before seeing the mollah, we were ushered through a garden decorated with spent Russian mortar-shells into one of Wasir Akbar Khan’s spacious modern houses, where we waited in the company of men who claimed to have been prisoners in Kandahar, where the Taliban are still holding out.
For the interview we had to cross the road to another house. While two Northern Alliance leading lights haven’t bothered to turn up for appointments with us, Khaksar is, so to speak, on tap, since his primary function is to be publicised.
He has appealed to other Taliban to come over to the Alliance and says that, in the time-honoured Afghan tradition, defectors should be offered places in a new government or, at least, at the forthcoming conference in Bonn on the country’s future.
Khaksar says that he split with the Taliban over their conduct of the war and calls for an end to the influence of foreigners on the country’s politics.
He is referring are the Arab fundamentalists, like Osama bin Laden, whose influence over the Taliban leadership and alleged arrogance in their dealings with local people has created massive resentment.
It also meant dissent in Taliban ranks. Some journalists have tried to find differences among "moderate" and "extremist" Taliban but the movement showed no signs of disunity when it came to mistreating the Afghan people.
One could perhaps distinguish between those who opportunistically went along with Taliban policies in order to keep administrative jobs or positions of influence and those who sincerely wanted to impose their own interpretation of Islam on the country. But who is more morally reprehensible, someone who imposes the burqa, illiteracy for women, amputation for theft, stoning for adultery, execution for homosxuality and so on because he thinks that it will lead humanity to paradise, or someone who collaborates with these practises in order to stay out of trouble? Is it worth making the distinction?
There is another division in the Taliban ranks.
It’s between those who back the foreign fundamentalists’ project of imposing Taliban-style rule on the whole Muslim world and those who are only concerned with what happens within the borders of Afghanistan.
Naturally, the latter view would appeal to pragmatists and careerists, but also to commanders who are realistic enough to know that they can’t beat the US’s military might and to those who believed that the Taliban could bring unity and stability to Afghanistan, a view which was apparently shared by Islamabad and Washington at one time.
My guess is that Khaksar falls into the pragmatic category, especially if he’s been secretly backing both horses for a couple of years. Today he plays on the hatred that much of the population has for the foreigners who came to pursue jihad in Afghanistan. Although they have come from all over the world, they are now all referred to as "the Arabs" and are loathed to such a degree that our sound engineer Méd, who’s of Moroccan origin, doesn’t dare let on that he speaks Arabic.
"These foreigners were the main reason that our country has been destroyed," says Khaksar.
Khaksar doesn’t refer to Pakistan, whose secret services set the Taliban up in business, or to the CIA, which backed this policy and encouraged the arrival of the first foreign jihadis during the war against the Russians. Nor does he mention Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states whose wealthy citizens provide the finance for the Islamic NGOs which became more influential as the Taliban became increasingly isolated internationally.
In the light of his distaste for foreign influence here, I ask him if US influence over the Northern Alliance worries him, especially since Washington is currently bombing Afghanistan.
The US says that it only wants to wipe out the "terrorists" in Afghanistan, Khaksar replies.
"When the terrorists are finished, we will see what we will do."
Rebuilding a shattered capital
The mayor of Kabul, Bahawi Mohaiuddin, tells us that bombings by "our American friends" have added to the accumulated rubble that he needs to clear up in order to reconstruct the capital.
We meet Mohaiuddin, a slim, genial man in his 40s who speaks slightly eccentric English, on the morning that he takes over the post.
"I haven’t even had time to resign from my old job with the ICRC," he tells us.
Mohaiuddin was Deputy Mayor in the early 90s and left the post when the Taliban took power. He inherits a city in ruins.
The city’s power comes from areas which are not fully controlled by Kabul, as we all learnt during the power cut. Many of the poorer areas don’t have power or water.
Some of the poor areas don’t even have buildings. In the early 90s rival factions of what’s now the Northern Alliance fought it out for control of the capital.
Stand among the ruins in the Hazara area in the west of the city and people will point to the mountains on either side and say, "Gulbuddin Hikmetyar’s guns were on that side and Ahmed Shah Masood’s were on the other and the shells fell here."
The figthing lasted from 1993 to 1995 when Hikmetyar allied himself with the Hazaras to try and seize control of the country. The revenge exacted by Masood’s men is said to have been brutal.
Warlords have also reduced an attempt at town-planning dating from the early 1990s to a distant memory.
The plan forecast a population of two million people. But over half the population has fled – the poor to refugee camps inside Afghanistan, or in Pakistan or Iran, the better-educated to Europe and the US. Meanwhile, they’ve been replaced by refugees from the fighting in the central Shomali plains. Mohaiuddin puts the present population at a million. Its transitory nature, added to the destruction of war, means overcrowding.
"In my own house only 35 per cent of the people who slept there last night actually lived there," he says.
Kabul used to have a park. No more. Various commanders took a fancy to the area and built homes on it. The possession of guns ensured that there were no problems with planning permission, nor with the supply of water and elecrticity. Other people hired gunmen to be present during the city engineer’s visit.
"Now the muinicipality has the problem, how to destroy that. If we destroy it, that is a lot of money to waste. If we do not, we cannot do our plan."
Despite the urgency of the tasks that he faces, Mohaiuddin has to run the city without money or trained personnel. The Taliban emptied the coffers when they left town. Many city employees hadn’t been paid for months before that.
Those that were left, that is. The madrassa graduates mistrusted anyone who had been through higher education. One by one, the city’s qualified personnel found themselves accused of being communists and driven out of the country because, like most of Afghanistan’s elite, they had received some of their training in Russia.
What do the Afghans expect of the future?
"The future depends on what the people do. But the point is now that there is a little bit of liberty for the people, before people couldn’t talk freely," says Abdul Fatah, who has a stall in front of Kabul’s cinema. He writes official letters for the illiterate or semi-literate.
Although there’s guarded optimism, it’s difficult to find anyone who has much confidence in the Northern Alliance. Everyone looks back nervously at the infighting and anarchy of the early 90s.
Sayjun, an unemployed Pashtun, says that he wants a multi-ethnic government. But would he have said that when the Pashtun-dominated Taliban were in power ?
Most people seem to hope that foreign pressure will keep their new leaders in order and that the Americans, when they’ve finished bombing them, will help reconstruct the country and then go away and leave them in peace.
It’s difficult to fthink of any occasion in Afghan or American history which justifies such optimism.
Hopes for peace, fears for the future
Mohammed Ahmed, a doctor whom we meet in the hotel car park in Jalalabad, seemed more independent-minded. He complained about the lack of equipment and medicines at the hospital where he works ("we don’t know how to help people") and told us that he hasn’t been paid for four months.
"They [the country’s new rulers] came before and they did the same thing before. They will give us nothing … You will have a new king and he will do his thing and then you will have another."
So who can bring peace for the people of Afghanistan ?
"I think that no-one can do that, just the people of Afghanistan … The British and the French and the Americans, they built their countries by themselves, no Afghan was there to work for them. The Afghans have to make their country by themselves. No-one will help you."
A deserted prison
Kabul prison is several kilometres out of town, in country that is practically desert. You turn off the road to Jalalabad, pass through a mud village with shops housed in old goods-containers, the cast-offs of the transport mafia.
The car kicks up more and more dust and, as we cross a flat plain, Kamal shifts uncomfortably in his seat.
"This is the first time I’ve been here. This is where my father was killed," he says.
He’s mentioned before that his father was executed "under the communists", to be precise under the second Khalq President, Hafizullah Amin.
Now I venture to ask why he was killed.
"Because he had political ideas."
What political ideas ?
"He was a Maoist."
Kamal says that thousands of political prisoners have been buried in the ground over which we are driving. Sometimes so many were buried at the same time that bulldozers were used to dig the graves.
A bunch of armed men meet us at the prison. They’re the guards but they have no one to watch over now. The gates are wide open. When the Taliban left town, they let all 12,000 prisoners go free.
"They were our own people. They lived where we live," says the guard who shows us around, a man in his 30s with scruffy clothes and a friendly face.
Given the fact that many of the prisoners were political allies of Kabul’s new masters, the altruism may have been born of the instinct of self-preservation.
There are seven cell-blocks, all surrounded by a wall with gun-turrets looking out onto the dusty nothingness around the jail.
We go into one block. Rubbish is strewn all over the place, papers, broken desks and plastic gloves. There’s an exercise yard, with a small garden in the corner. Inside are the large cages into which the common law prisoners were packed.
Upstairs there’s a corridor with individual cells off it. Their occupants had decorated the cells with huge graffiti of sayings from the Koran or quotations from poets. On the pink-painted walls of one cell, there are idyllic tropical seascapes, an open Koran and a squadron of fighter-planes attacking a convoy of motor vehicles. This is the political prisoners’ wing.
Around the corner the bottom half of a leg is lying amid the rubbish. An artificial one. A landmine victim or wounded fighter was in such a hurry to leave that he left his artificial limb behind.
Through the windows we can see walls pocked with bullet-holes. They date from the factional fighting of the early 90s, when the rival militias came into the prison to fight. The guard says that this happened many times.
Two rooms are clean and painted white and bright, like a surgery.
"This was where they tortured people," the guard explains. The tortures including beating people with metal-wighted cable and emasculating them by crushing their testicles.
Many thousands of people were executed here, says the guard, and many died under torture.
Was this just under the Taliban, or under all régimes ?
"It was the Taliban … We don’t see anything like this in the world before."
Leaving via Bagram
Thanks to the US-British bombings, it’s not possible to leave via Kabul airport.
The UN agencies run flights from Bagram on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. They’re much in demand, despite the fact that insurance costs have put the price of a seat up to 2,000 dollars. God help the freelancers! Places are not available to Afghans, so Kamal and Assad have to drive back to Peshawar along the road on which we were robbed.
"Take the new road," the ICRC officials told us. "The old one’s mined."
There’s more dust, more desert along the route and walled homesteads without a sign of life. In the distance, there’s a larger town, whose mud buildings are difficult to distinguish from the countryside. The mountains brood at the side, dry and brown except for small patches of snow right at the top.
At one point the car veers off the road ahead of a bombed-out bridge going over a stream. We go down a twisted track to the side of the stream, where the shell of a tank lies half in the water as if it had been demobilised earlier this morning. The car goes under another broken-up bridge, across the stream and back onto the road.
There doesn’t seem to be much left of Bagram. An empty foxhole by the airport gate with an escape path leading back into what’s left of the village. We wait outside the locked airport gate and a group of Western soldiers appears on the other side, a few metres away. They won’t answer when I ask who they are. A man from the BBC says that their Americans and that the Brits who were reportedly here have already left.There are two small aircraft on the runway, waiting to take us out of Afghanistan. Our plane has to circle above the airport six times to gain the necessary height. It turns on its side and we see the wreckage of the airport itself, then the leathery sides of mountains lurch towards us, then away as we pull up and head for Islamabad.