by Elizabeth Rubin
Post date 11.15.01 | Issue date 11.26.01
"Hurry hurry hurry. We can destroy the enemy. Advance."
"Hit hit hit the Taliban."
"Hit him hit him hit him. Fire, fire."
"We're arriving in Khalakhan."
"Take care about the troops."
"The Taliban are surrendering."
"Bring them to me."
"One hundred of them are coming to you."
"El Ham captured a pickup with their weapons."
These were the voices on the radio of the Northern Alliance commanders we have been visiting for weeks. Several other journalists and I were standing with some Afghan soldiers on the roof of a command post--a mud house with a tank's turret and gun jutting out of the roof--just outside a village called Qala-I-Zai, on the road to Kabul. An American B-52 looped around overhead. The ground trembled and giant charcoal cyclones of smoke curtained the sky above the Taliban front line, maybe a kilometer to the east. "It's like an atomic bomb," someone said. A pickup sped by carrying a body covered in a gray, woolen blanket, and the Afghan soldiers clicked their tongues and shook their heads. It was one of their own. Thin sand squalls rose across the desert plain. The soldiers fired giant rockets from an old Soviet multiple-rocket launcher, sending birds into flight over our heads. Nineteen- and twenty-year-old soldiers waiting for orders to advance broke into hysterical laughter every time another Taliban mortar crashed around us and someone rose from the ground with dust covering their lips and eyelashes. Later, a CNN cameraman showed up. He was filming every journalist he encountered, just in case, he said, "because you know three were killed yesterday."
After weeks and weeks of waiting, of commanders complaining about ammunition shortages and about the inexplicable delays of their leaders, early Monday morning the Northern Alliance soldiers lined up on the old and new roads to Kabul in front of their tanks. It was a moment of solemnity before finally setting off to take back their capital. A soldier sang melancholy Koranic verse. The men prayed to Allah for victory, and to destroy the foreign terrorists in their country, to capture back their villages and towns, and to stay alive.
There was El Ham, with the immaculately clean black boots, whose former friend, Sharif, was a Taliban commander now. Normally El Ham and he had cordial, even friendly, chats over the walkie-talkie at the end of a fighting day. A few days earlier he'd called up Sharif on the walkie-talkie. Sharif had lost several soldiers to an American bomb, and he was in a bad mood. When he heard an American woman was in the vicinity, he denounced El Ham as an infidel and a servant of the Americans. A 21-year-old in El Ham's unit was sitting on the floor petting a yellow and gray desert bird he'd found. He hated Sharif and the shame the Taliban brought to the name of Islam. "Islam says women should be educated. And in fact," he said, "we're fighting this war because of the rights of women."
There was Mohammad Reza, a 27-year-old tank driver and engineer who had wanted a different, normal life. He was married just two months ago. The day before, leaning against his tank in his black sneakers, and smiling a shy, James Dean kind of smile, he had asked me why the Americans had been so fooled by the Taliban, why they supported the Taliban in the early days. And then he answered his own question, discussing the U.S. government's backing for unocal, a U.S. energy company, and its plan to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and into Pakistan in the 1990s. Mohammad Reza was from Kabul, and he hadn't seen his parents or sisters since 1996, when the Taliban took the capital and he fled with Ahmed Shah Massoud's forces into the Panjshir Valley. After all these years of waiting to return, he couldn't imagine obeying the Americans, who said that the Northern Alliance should advance only as far as the gates of the city.
There was the comedian tank commander, Ahmad Shah, one of the few Afghans I've met with a pet dog, whom he calls Maxi. He'd saved me and a few other journalists one day--we had been taking cover in a house--when he rolled up in his tank, popped out of the driver's hole covered in dust, and offered us a ride out of a crossfire along the same old road from Qala-I-Zai to Kabul.
There was Mohammad Allah, a blue-eyed 26-year-old who'd been a commander of a hundred soldiers since the age of 16, when he replaced his brother who was killed in the civil war. His frontline position had been the bombed-out cinema built by the Russians at the Bagram airport north of Kabul, where they had some 4,000 soldiers stationed in the 1980s, and where we had visited him not long before. He told me he adored Indian film stars. He'd lost ten relatives in the last three months, some of them in the Taliban assault just after the World Trade Center attack. "Here you can see their blood," he'd said during our visit, rubbing his hand down the burgundy stains on the pink cinema wall. He has three small children, but his wife died two years ago--from "illness," he said--and he told me when there was peace in Afghanistan, he'd marry again and go walking with his new wife.
I heard someone shouting over the walkie-talkie that it was Mohammad Allah's turn to advance and kill the Taliban. Not long ago he had said to me, "Are we ready for this attack? Fifty-fifty." But as Mohammad Reza, the newly wed tank driver, had said when I asked him about the land mines along the road, "It's an offensive. Some of us will be lost."
As early dusk began falling over the Shamali Plain on Monday, however, it was clear the Taliban positions were rapidly collapsing. One success after another was signaled by the firing of a rocket and a plume of black smoke hovering like a parachute high in the sky, each one further south as the Northern Alliance captured another village. In one former Taliban village in the cradle of a small mountain to the west, the Northern Alliance soldiers set a blazing fire to tell the American pilots still flying not to bomb anymore because they'd taken the position.
That night I drove back north to Gulbahar to see Commander Qais, who I'd heard was advancing on his home village of Karabagh, one of the last before Kabul. He pulled up to his quarters in a pickup. One of his soldiers got out and breathlessly slipped a red backpack off his shoulder. "It's from an Arab I killed," he said, smiling. He pulled out some clothes and a handwritten driver's license for a man named Abdul Hakim. Wind was whipping around the willows over a brook that ran right down the middle of the road. Qais, a small, thin, modest man who looks much older than his 35 years, walked up to me slowly. His face was splattered with shrapnel wounds. His pockets were full of documents taken from Arabs and Pakistanis who'd been lying injured on the road until Qais's boys ran over them with their tanks. "I was a child when we started fighting terrorism and now my beard is gray. But maybe, finally, terrorism will be wiped out from all the world," he said. He was exhausted but he'd made the two-hour trip back north to see his mother and pick up ammunition, water, and food for his soldiers.
Early the next morning, we took the road out to Karabagh through a melancholy, eerie landscape of burnt-out mud and brick houses, standing like washed-over sandcastles on a beach. When the Taliban captured the place a few years ago, they even burnt the vineyards black. We were expecting to find a Northern Alliance front line, but except for a few soldiers we picked up along the way, the road was empty and we drove on, 20 minutes or so, until Khair Khana, just under the mountain pass that leads into Kabul. Some Pakistanis and Arabs were splayed out dead in the middle of the road, along with one huge, red-bearded Talib. He was a commander named Mahmoud, I later found out, who had been gunned down fleeing from Kabul that morning.
Further on we could see the outskirts of the city in the valley below and hundreds of young men moving up from Kabul to greet the Northern Alliance troops. It all happened so fast, and so unexpectedly. Though the Northern Alliance troops were piled on trucks and vans and buses and even donkeys, the push for Kabul was by all accounts meticulously coordinated, crushing the Taliban in the villages north of the city within hours. Hundreds and hundreds of Taliban defected, others ran, and the front lines collapsed around mid-afternoon on Monday. By about ten o'clock that night, the Taliban were fleeing the capital. Inside the city, Hindi music floated from the windows of yellow taxis. One driver told us he used to play his music softly; if he saw a Taliban checkpoint he'd switch to prayer music.
A traffic jam was forming on the pass while the Northern Alliance soldiers waited for the go-ahead from their leaders to enter the city, so we decided to walk. Though I had a large shawl over my head, I was wearing pants and boots and I wasn't wearing a burqa. An entourage quickly formed around us. Men shouted, "Welcome, welcome." Another shouted, "Oh, it's been so long that I've seen such a girl dressed like you. Five years. I love you." The women wafting along the roadside in their blue burqas said that yes, in a few days, if things were secure, they'd throw them off. "We're free. We're free. They were so horrible, they stoned us, they beat us if we wore these improperly," one woman said quietly through the screen covering her face.
I ran into a few soldiers I'd met in Jabal Saraj, and they led us to a jeep and a man named Amin Doulla, whose missing teeth gave his face the look of an ancient nomad, though he was only 40 years old. "If they'd give him to me I'd eat him," he said, tears filling his eyes as he shook his fists at a young Pakistani man sitting in a jeep between two Northern Alliance soldiers. Amin Doulla shouted at him, but the boy from the Punjab sat stiffly, unfazed. "Three years ago, he fired a mortar into my house," Amin said, pulling his arms back to imitate the firing of artillery. "I hid in the grape fields and watched him burn my house with petrol. All my children were killed. Eight children," he shouted. "I want to eat him. I want to eat him." It was incredible that the two should have met there, on the Khair Khana pass. Soldiers had seen the Pakistani trying to flee up the road. And when they arrested him, Amin Doulla happened to be passing by. Still shaking, Amin Doulla pointed at his own mouth. "He found me, arrested me, and I was in jail for two years and lost all my teeth." Soon, other men gathered round the jeep chanting, "Hit him, hit him, kill this fuck-off."
he crowd around us was getting out of control--the men wanted to look at and talk to the foreigners, especially the American woman--so we got into a taxi going into Kabul. The driver somewhat apologetically said, "You see how the Taliban have made our people so wild." He turned up the music and pointed to the children climbing through the gates of the Taliban barracks, just outside the city, that had been destroyed by American bombs.
For weeks we'd heard about the Pakistanis and Arabs gathering on the front lines, and the claims of the Northern Alliance that Afghanistan is under foreign occupation. Slowly, the truth of those claims came to light. Inside the city, under the pine trees and in the canals of a park near the shutdown cinema, lay the crumpled, stiff remains of several Arabs and Pakistanis who'd put up a two-hour gunfight that morning. Kids had stuffed cigarettes in the mouth of one Arab, wrapped tape from a cassette around his neck, and put a heavy stick in his hand--all symbols of the Taliban regime's repressive practices. Gathered round a sizzled pickup that had apparently been bombed by American planes, clusters of people were sifting through the debris, turning up fingers and hair of Taliban. Children on trucks, on the sidewalks, perched on the walls of the roundabouts chanted unabashedly, "Fuck off Taliban," "Fuck the Taliban mothers," "Death to the Taliban and death to Pakistan."
Outside the home of Mahmoud, the dead, red-bearded commander we'd seen on the roadside, we could hear the women wailing. Several men ushered me inside to take pictures on behalf of the male photographer I was traveling with. Back outside, one of the men said, "First he was a Northern Alliance commander, then he joined the Taliban. God has a schedule for human beings and so he took him this morning." Another said, "They made us like prisoners in our homes and now we are free."
By midday the Northern Alliance commanders were in the city. Gul Haider, a well-known, wooden-legged commander who has been fighting since the days of the Russians, had occupied an Arab and Pakistani military compound. A security guard with the Northern Alliance showed us an address book he'd found with numbers abroad to contact Osama bin Laden. At the Ministry for the Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue, books and papers written in Arabic littered the floors and desks and cabinets, along with piles of the infamous leather whips made in Pakistan and used by the religious police. One rolled-up edict read: "Three cooks didn't pray in the evening and were given seven hundred whacks with the cable. In the morning four men left the house without saying prayers and were given seven hundred whacks with the cable."
A poster-sized statement, drafted by the mullahs here, attempted to lay out all the Koranic justifications for closing down the girls' schools--namely, because they need to be covered in chadors and separated from men. A bundle of Bibles written in Hebrew along with letters to Israel were bound up in a green bag, most likely confiscated from Jewish Afghans. The man guarding the old ministry shuddered when he saw a pile of turbans on a windowsill. He'd been thrown in prison by the religious police numerous times--because his beard was too short, because he was Tajik, because he was a man from the Panjshir Valley selling rugs.
Perhaps the greatest signs of freedom in Kabul today were the clumps of hair gathering on the barbershop floors, and the children sailing their multicolored kites over every city neighborhood--a pastime forbidden here for the last five years. The barbers, many of whom were arrested eight months ago for giving "Titanic-style" haircuts--combed straight, with a part down the center, and too Western--were celebrating the Taliban defeat by cutting their customers' beards for free. I met a woman doctor, a cousin of Ahmed Shah Massoud, who held the rank of general in the military for nearly 20 years but was confined to practicing medicine on Taliban wives just once a month at the military hospital. "Tomorrow," she told me, "they must announce on the radio that we can take off these chadris. And then I'll put back on my general's uniform and walk the streets with my face to the air."
ELIZABETH RUBIN is covering the war in Afghanistan for The New Republic.
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