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Afghanistan: Kabul Residents Recall Lifting Of 'Dark Curtain Of Cruelty' One Year Ago

One year ago, the streets of Kabul were alive with the sounds of car horns, shouting, and once-forbidden music as residents celebrated the withdrawal of the Taliban regime from the Afghan capital. The Taliban's hasty and largely bloodless retreat followed a series of military successes by the Northern Alliance supported by U.S.-led coalition air strikes -- victories that helped alliance fighters advance to the capital's northern outskirts. Northern Alliance forces entered the city on 13 November, despite international appeals to hold back until a new government could be formed. The liberation of the city could not, however, come soon enough for its residents.

Kabul, 11 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ghulam Hazrat runs a ramshackle bicycle-repair shop just outside the gates of Olympic Stadium in southeastern Kabul.

Now a home again for athletics, the arena had until recently served as a killing field. Under its radical interpretation of Islamic law, the Taliban militia used the stadium during its five years in power for routine Friday public executions and punitive mutilations. Some convicted murderers were shot; others were hanged, with the stadium's goalposts serving as gallows. The hands of thieves were amputated. Those found guilty of lesser crimes were flogged.

Today, the stadium and the streets surrounding it are quiet as the city nears the first anniversary -- 13 November -- of the Taliban's retreat from the capital.

Standing beneath the crumpled metal roof of his repair shack, surrounded by broken bicycles, 45-year-old Hazrat recalls his emotions when he heard that Northern Alliance forces had routed the Taliban from the capital. "It was such a day! The people of Afghanistan, especially the people of Kabul City, felt like they had been freed from prison. Everyone, including children, young people, and women, were cheering and were very happy. We were thinking that we were imprisoned [during the Taliban], but fortunately God did not want them to continue their cruelties, and their lifetime was a short one," Hazrat says.

Fifty-six-year-old Haji Abdulahmad is sitting on the curb along the dusty road in front of the stadium. Abdulahmad says that he and his family fled to Pakistan to escape the Taliban but decided to return when the capital fell. "We were in Pakistan, and we felt very happy [upon hearing the news of the Taliban's fall]. I told my family we should return to our homeland. And we came back to our country from Pakistan very delighted," Abdulahmad says.

Gulmir, a 62-year-old painter, recalls 13 November 2001 as a true day of liberation. "We were very happy because the Taliban caused a lot of problems for both men and women. They used to kill people and imprison them. The Taliban oppressed the people without any reason. When they left, a brightness came on our country. We are very happy now. Long live Afghanistan," Gulmir says.

Shamsiafazli is 55 and works in the Ministry of Transportation in the government of the Transitional Authority. She is well-dressed, with a chador, the traditional Islamic shawl, elegantly covering her head. Shamsiafazli is not wearing a burqa, the head-to-toe covering the Taliban ordered all women to wear when out in public. She, too, remembers the day the Taliban left the city as one filled with joy. "On that day, all the people of Afghanistan became very happy, not only the men but the women, too, because during the five years and few months of the Taliban [regime], women could do nothing. They couldn't even help their children become educated. We were like prisoners in our own houses," Shamsiafazli says.

Shamsiafazli said that during the days of the Taliban, women whose husbands had been killed during the country's two decades of warfare and conflict were not permitted to work to support their children. Often, the children themselves would have to beg or work as casual laborers to earn money for food and shelter. Today, she says, everyone has the chance to work and study.

Twenty-five-year-old Nargis has chosen to keep wearing a burqa. But she also looks back gratefully on the day the Taliban's "dark curtain of cruelty," as she calls it, was lifted from the city. "We were feeling very happy [on that day]. We had never felt such happiness before. People were happy after the dark curtain of cruelty was lifted from their faces. Everyone was feeling cheerful. It is a day that we will never forget. In the past, we were happy when there was a festival or a New Year's celebration, but [13 November] was the happiest day for us," Nargis says.

Mirhaider is a 26-year-old soldier in the Afghan National Army. His uniform is in itself a measure of how much Kabul has changed -- one year ago, there was no national army. "We were feeling very happy. We were delighted that the Taliban were gone because they were terrorists. Our country is improving day by day. Now we can express our happiness about this [the fall of the Taliban]," Mirhaider says.

Asma, 25, speaks through the mesh of her burqa. She is a student now and says the withdrawal of the Taliban meant that she could again go to school. Hundreds of thousands of girls and women returned to classrooms last spring, when the country reopened its schools and universities to female students for the first time in five years. "The day the Taliban fell we were happy since schools were reopened and the way toward education was paved for us. We were feeling happy when the Taliban left," Asma says.

But Asma feels that not everything has returned to normal in the capital. That is why she says she still wears the burqa. "[We are wearing the burqa] because we are accustomed to wearing it, and we are still concerned about taking it off. We are waiting until there is more security and a powerful government established. We'll be wearing the burqa until there is such a government," Asma says.

Asma is not alone in her fears. Signs of change abound in the capital, where cellular telephones are now almost as common as images of the late Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. But most women on its teeming streets still wear the body-shrouding burqa -- tens of thousands of ghostly blue reminders of the country's Taliban past that, one year later, still haunt the streets of the capital.

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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.