Afghanistan is a landscape of desert and destruction. Life in the capital, Kabul, while regaining some semblance of civility, is still difficult, and the path to prosperity promises to be a long one. But the hopes of the population are enormous. They want to move forward and hold only bitter memories of the ousted Taliban regime.
Kabul, 31 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Amid overwhelming destruction, life in Kabul seems to be regaining at least a veneer of normalcy. But the majority of the population is still desperately poor. The outskirts of the city are a huge bazaar, where beggar children swarm and where people eke out a living through endless bargaining.
Despite the continued hardships, nobody seems to regret the downfall of the Taliban. Even if the general consensus is that women should continue to wear the burqa, all those interviewed by our correspondent on the streets of Kabul in the past week expressed no regrets at the ouster of the theocratic regime.
The Taliban could be compared to a plague, or a natural disaster without any moral meaning, like an invasion of locusts. Yet like a natural disaster, the Taliban's rule is not easily forgotten. Everyone in Kabul seems to have a story to share about the regime -- tales of horror or simply of daily harassment.
Farid says he was severely beaten by the Taliban after a soldier found a cigarette in the bus he was driving: "The Taliban picked it up and said to me, 'You are taking drugs!' However, I told him that I wasn't taking any drugs, but that I smoke cigarettes sometimes. He didn't believe me, and they took me to [a nearby room]. They brought a chain, and they hit me with that chain over my back 13 or 14 times. They kept repeating that I was an opium addict, and I kept saying that I wasn't. Then the [bus] passengers told them that I was not an opium addict. Without the presence of some old people from the bus, they would have put me in jail."
Another Kabul resident, Ahmed, says he witnessed the killing of a neighbor under the Taliban: "The younger brother of a car washer was arrested by the Taliban and accused of possessing a gun. After beating him a lot, they forced him to confess that he had a gun. They led him to his house, and the boy told them to dig in different places. At last, they wanted to kill him, when his father came. The boy then fled away, and he was gunned down by the Taliban."
Others say they fell prey to the petty religious bureaucracy of the Taliban. One of these is Najibullah, who came to Kabul from Mazar-i-Sharif. Before the Taliban, Najibullah worked for the Red Cross in Mazar-i-Sharif and later for the Social Welfare Foundation. He is one of those Afghans -- more and more numerous now -- who approved of his wife working, even under the Taliban.
In Mazar-i-Sharif, Najibullah and his wife, Nafisa, started an association that took care of a number of kindergartens. Through these schools, they opened workshops in which local women participated in money-making activities such as carpet weaving and knitting.
"When we began our association, there were only 20 women working with us. After one month, there were 100 of them," Najibullah says. "That was during the Taliban. Since the workers were all women, we needed a female supervisor. We appointed my wife as a supervisor, without her being paid. All 100 of the women worked under the direction of my wife."
But the Taliban did not look kindly on such an initiative: "For the Taliban, even the sound of the foot of a woman [walking] was illegal. They didn't like the idea of women working in such an organization alongside men. This was totally banned according to their regulations. It was very difficult for us, because they would not let this kind of organization function."
When the Taliban took control of Mazar-i-Sharif, Najibullah and Nafisa left everything behind and headed to Kabul. They were unable to find jobs and lived what they describe as a miserable existence.
What is surprising is that, even after the defeat of the Taliban, Nafisa continues to wear a burqa, like most of the women of Kabul. She explains why: "Because their hearts are broken, the women are not yet confident. They don't know whether the situation has changed. Because of this, the women protect themselves."
The Taliban's defeat also prompted expatriates to return to Afghanistan. Some have opened profitable businesses. One such enterprise is the Mustafa Hotel, an inn run by a young Afghan businessman, Wais Faizi, who recently returned from the United States.
Faizi says he could not have opened such a hotel under the Taliban. He says he is optimistic about the future: "I came here to help my people. If I don't come, who's going to come? You have to start somewhere. My goal is to make a difference in this country, and hopefully I can achieve this goal. So far, what I'm doing is going OK."
Like most Afghans, Faizi believes something irreversible has taken place in Afghanistan: "The future, for the rest of these [Afghan] kids, looks bright, as far as we'll have education, a good learning system, schools open for males and females. The most important thing is education in this country. Hopefully, with foreign aid, we'll have that."