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Afghanistan: With Taliban Gone, Locals Free To Celebrate Norouz

Afghans today enthusiastically celebrated the start of the Central Asian New Year, or Norouz, for the first time in years. The festival was banned under the Taliban regime. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky was in Kabul and watched as thousands in the Afghan capital took part in the celebrations.

Kabul, 21 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Today is the traditional beginning of the New Year in Afghanistan, as it is in many Central Asian countries. The day, called Norouz, has been commemorated for some 5,000 years.

Under the rule of the extremist Taliban regime, Norouz was banned as un-Islamic. But with the Taliban now gone, Afghans are free again to celebrate.

Last night, families gathered for a meal to mark the eve of Norouz with the traditional fare of rice and spinach sauce, chicken soup and yoghurt. Today, relatives and friends exchanged gifts of cookies and sweets and a fruit drink called "haft meywa."

Tens of thousands turned out today in the Afghan capital and elsewhere to witness a ceremony that superstition says determines whether the year will be lucky or not.

The tradition centers around a hefty wooden pole about the size of a telephone pole called the "janda alam tokh," or "janda." The pole is decorated with cloth in the green color of Islam and topped with the type of large metal orb found on mosques.

A group of men, usually tough-built wrestlers or sportsmen, attach ropes to the "janda" and attempt to hoist it into a hole in the ground. If the act is performed in a smooth, easy motion then tradition says the year will be lucky. If the men falter, then the omens are bad. The ceremony is done in towns and villages all over the country.

Thousands of people crowded the hills around the mosque in the Kabul suburb of Kart-e-Sakhi to watch the ceremony.

The streets and even the cemetery around the mosque, with its two blue domes, were full of vendors selling shashlik, sweetcorn, candies, cookies, and brightly colored hardboiled eggs. There were brightly colored balloons everywhere, and children screamed with pleasure as they took rides on precarious-looking ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and swings.

Hundreds of women watched from a segregated area. Many of them left their faces uncovered and had painted their hands with henna. Such a sight was unthinkable during the Taliban era.

Medical student Mustafa Saddiq said he felt like he was dreaming as he watched so many people laughing and enjoying themselves, without fear of being arrested by the Taliban's religious police -- almost everything that was being done today was a breach of former regulations.

"It's one of the most important days of the year, and it's been celebrated for a long time -- even from prehistoric eras in Afghanistan. But unfortunately, in the dark days of the Taliban, the people could not really celebrate that ancient Norouz. But, now, fortunately, after the fall of the Taliban, the people do feel very happy and gleeful, and as you can see lots of people are gathered here to celebrate this ancient and important Norouz in Afghanistan."

There was a hush as men -- dressed in green tunics with red sashes around their waists -- prepared to pull on the ropes attached to poles. As the men heaved the ropes, the crowd began urging them on with cries of "Allahuakbar" -- God is Great -- which reached a crescendo as the pole slipped into its housing in a smooth motion.

There were many off-duty Afghan soldiers among the spectators, distinct in their camouflage uniforms and traditional flat Afghan caps. One of them, commander Ahmed Hakim from Afghanistan's Panshir region, said the Taliban and their mostly Arab Al-Qaeda allies had not only forbidden celebrations like Norouz but had stoked ethnic tensions that had turned Afghan against Afghan.

Hakim said today's celebrations, taking place in a minority Shiite Hazara tribe area of the capital, showed that enmities could be overcome.

"Unfortunately, there was, in the past, interference in our internal affairs and because of ethnic tensions, we could not celebrate this day. But I hope that this year will be a prosperous and lucky year for us." He said he hoped that this year would be the one in which conflict ceased in his country.

"I myself am of the belief that we should gaze joyfully into each other's faces and we should forget our ethnic enmities. We should not say that this one is a Pashtun, that one is a Hazara, that an Uzbek, another a Tajik. I think we are looking very happily at each other this year and this will be a joyful year."

There were also celebrations arranged by the city government and attended by tens of thousands of people in Kabul's main sports stadium, where, under the Taliban regime, people had been publicly executed for breaches of the strict Koranic Sharia law or had their limbs amputated for theft.

Today, cheering filled the stadium as parades and floats went in a circular route around the field.

Groups of male dancers performing the Afghan national dance, men representing different sports, and Afghan soldiers marching in ceremonial uniforms complete with swords all drew applause.

The biggest excitement and loudest cheers came when two teams of 10 horsemen played the traditional Afghan and Central Asian game of Buzkashi.

Riding at a furious pace and often slamming into each other, the opposing teams fought over the carcass of a goat. The game is won by the team which manages to drop the goat into a marked spot on the field the most times. One unconscious rider, covered in blood, was taken off the field after his horse rolled over onto him after crashing into an opponent.

After the game, there was laughter as a float bearing a scowling effigy of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden beating a little boy and burning Korans made a circuit of the stadium.