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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

KABUL'S 'ZOMBIES'

The Taliban's religious police have crushed the spirits of a once-cosmopolitan people and prompted thousands to flee the capital

By Robin Ajello and Anthony Davis


(Anthony Davis for Asiaweek)

THINGS ONE MAY NOT to do in Kabul: fly a kite; play football or chess; listen to the car stereo; dance; take pictures of animals or people; read foreign books or magazines; go to the cinema; celebrate New Year. Things one must do in Kabul: paint over windows so neighbors cannot see the unveiled women inside; grow a longish beard like that of the Prophet; go to the mosque whenever the muezzin calls.

All of the above are edicts laid down by the Taliban leadership. They are extremely harsh by the standards of mainstream Islam and reflect a blinkered rural perspective. But to disobey is to tangle with the Department for Propagation of Virtue and the Prohibition of Vice. Religious police cruise the streets in pick-up trucks meting out on-the-spot floggings with heavy wire to those who dare to flout the laws. Whippings go to women who do not conform to the strict hejab Islamic dress code -- the tent-like chador. Taxi drivers get the lash for giving such women a ride. In March, 84 bureaucrats got the sack for trimming their beards.

In the last two decades, Kabulis have learned to be adaptable and not a little fatalistic. During the ferocious see-saw battles that have characterized recent Afghan history, residents of the once-cosmopolitan capital have endured communist witch hunts. They have learned to sleep nights as rockets fired by dueling warlords crashed into their neighborhoods. They may have even cheered when the Taliban victory last September finally brought a semblance of peace to the city. But nothing -- not even the reports of religious zealotry leaking in from the front -- could have prepared Kabulis for life under the new regime.

"Nowhere in our history has there been such a humiliation of the Afghan people," says Abdullah, the son of a well-to-do Kabul family that fled the capital. "It is as if this group was created and deployed to kill the soul of a nation."

Refusing to accept the Taliban's harsh version of Islam and beset by rising prices brought on by the collapse of the economy, thousands of Kabulis have fled north to the sanctuary of cities still ruled by opposition forces. Some even head for Pakistan, ironic because that is where the Taliban first got their support and training. Many have headed to the lush Panjshir Valley of their forbears. "We have nothing but the clothes we are wearing," says Mohammad Ibrahim one afternoon, as he and his family pause for breath on a windy mountain pass, the bright green valley of his people tantalizingly in sight. "But we had no choice but to leave Kabul."

Ibrahim, a mechanic from central Kabul, left not so much because of the edicts but because he is a Taijik from Panjshir. To the Pushtun Taliban, that makes him a potential footsoldier to Ahmadshah Massoud, military supremo of the former government. Men like Ibrahim get special treatment from Kabul's new masters. He was jailed for a month after a routine search for guns, though he says he had no weapon. One of his Panjshir-born companions was a civil servant but says he could not take the harassment: "It's enough that you're Panjshiri, or from Shomali [north of Kabul] or simply farsizaban [Persian-speaking] -- you must be hiding weapons."

No group, however, has been harder hit by the Taliban's social re-engineering than women. Overnight they became unwelcome in the workplace. There are some exceptions to the rule. Though women working for U.N. agencies are confined to their homes, their contracts were extended and their monthly salaries are delivered to the door. Some women are allowed to work in hospitals, ferried to and fro in vans with curtains that hide them from the driver and the outside world. But mostly, career women are out of luck, none more so than widows who provided for their families. Psychologically isolated, physically confined and pushed to the economic brink, more and more women are talking about killing themselves, say aid workers.

One rumor doing the rounds is that the Taliban closed female bathhouses to prevent women from meeting and organizing protests that could snowball. In such a climate of fear, defiance is hard to find. In western Herat, the citizenry has struggled to keep alive a spirit of resistance. There has been at least one demonstration by women and acts of minor disobedience. "In Herat, people were kicking against the system," says a foreign visitor. "Taxi drivers kept playing tapes and then hiding them at checkpoints. It was a game between the population and the Taliban. But there's none of that in Kabul."

The Taliban's opponents paint a pessimistic picture of the capital. "We will never have the same Kabul," says Abdullah, who advises Massoud. "The destruction can be repaired, but you will never again have the things that count: the traditions and values and a social structure with a continuity over hundreds of years." That's probably under-estimating Kabulis, but the mood in the capital can only be described as cowed. "It's terribly sad," says a senior U.N. official. "You get the feeling of completely broken spirits. People are like zombies. Finally, hell ends in terms of fighting but instead they've got all these restrictions."

In the Panjshir Valley, 100 km north of Kabul, Massoud's commanders are busy reorganizing their depleted forces and planning an eventual return to the capital. Support networks inside the city, they say, can be reactivated when the time is ripe. But they are almost certainly kidding themselves. For the time being, Kabul's traumatized and exhausted population has had quite enough of "liberation." What interests Kabulis today is something far more basic -- the chance to be themselves.


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